Theatre makers everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges. Plays are shared experiences that have profound effects on artists and audiences alike. Theatre education has been proven to help children learn empathy, creativity and public speaking. But with theaters and schools closed all across the world, it can be difficult to imagine how we can still create and share plays. Yet somehow, artists are learning to persevere. Many play readings and classes have moved online. Artists and teachers are managing to meet, discuss, rehearse and perform despite being unable to leave their homes. Their creativity is truly inspiring.
In the midst of it all, Beat By Beat Press has released a children’s musical specifically to be performed by students online. The musical is called The Show Must Go Online! and has music by Denver Casado (also the founder of Beat by Beat Press), lyrics by Dave Hudson, and a book by Jessica Penzias.
As many people who have tried to move plays online have discovered, sound can be a major challenge on zoom. The conferencing software was built for business meetings and does not allow for overlapping speech or singing. The creative team of The Show Must Go Online! has accounted for this in how they constructed the musical. It’s made up of a series of two-minute scene/songs that, when strung together, form the story of a group of students who are trying to keep their school musical going online.
“The Show Must Go Online! was borne partly out of necessity.” Hudson said of the inspiration for the piece, “One of my artistic homes, The Actors Garden, is a family-centric theatre and performing arts school in Oak Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. When quarantine became ‘real’ in early March, we realized that there could very well be a possibility that we’d need an online option for our summer camp.”
When writing the show, the creators tried to keep the limitations that educators are dealing with in mind. “We had to address two big challenges. First, it is incredibly hard (essentially impossible) to do music online with remote collaborators due to latency. Second, we needed to write something that our target director could ‘produce’ with as little technical overhead as possible. We didn’t want to write a piece where the director would need to have video editing expertise, or assume they had a sound engineer at their disposal.” Hudson said.
Theatre makers and educators everywhere are scrambling to figure out new technology and how to transition their plays, which were intended to be performed live, over zoom. That’s why The Show Must Go Online! was intended to be user-friendly. “We wanted this virtual musical to be easy to produce.” Penzias said, “We didn’t want to give drama teachers the added challenge of figuring out complicated technology, downloading editing software, or purchasing new equipment. Accordingly, we structured the musical so it could be told in short segments recorded by individual performers.”
Each student is assigned a short scene/song that they can record on their own. They send in their clip and the teacher can easily place them in order. Though, what was designed to be easy for teachers, proved to be a structural challenge for the creators. “The challenge was how to make the story interesting when you couldn’t revisit characters.” Casado explained, “We wanted to be able to involve at least twenty kids in the show. Each kid was only going to get one scene. And we couldn’t really develop a linear character arc because we would only see each kid one time.” The writers had only nineteen days to put this show together to meet the demand. Casado said, “We learned very early on that we had to make decisions super-fast and not second guess ourselves.”
Casado, Hudson, and Penzias have been writing musicals for some time, which better prepared them to tackle this particular challenge. “The fact that my two collaborators, Jessica and Dave, we all have written a lot of musicals, have all done the BMI Workshop, we all spoke the same language. We had a short-hand already which helped a lot.” Casado said.
On April 6, 2020, The Show Must Go Online! was released. The response was instantaneous and positive. “We were very fortunate that we were able to get this out on April 6. And since then, we’ve had four hundred and forty-eight virtual productions licensed in eleven countries.” Casado said. He attributes some of this success to the unconventional advertising they employed.
Moments after coming up with it, Casado uploaded a video, detailing their idea to the community of educators who license from Beat By Beat Press. They were overwhelmed by the positive response. The creative team continued to post videos through their short process. By the time they released The Show Must Go Online!, there were educators waiting by their computers ready to license it. Casado said, “Instantly the website was flooded with requests for the show and it was just really cool to see. I think because we were able to kind of bring people into the process.”
This has been such a difficult time for the theatre community. This project was a bright spot for, not only the educator community, but also the creative team. “This project helped me cope with the upheaval caused by the pandemic. The writing process afforded me a creative outlet during a scary time.” Penzias said, “It gave me a strong sense of purpose, and I loved immersing myself in a light-hearted, comedic world each day. Hopefully, now that it’s out in the world, this musical can offer young performers and their communities the same joyful escape.”
As the world continues to try to find a light in all the darkness, Casado, Penzias, and Hudson are already working on their next project. “We’re hoping to get out at least one more project before summer hits so that summer camps can have another option for something to do.” Casado said.
LILY DWOSKIN is a bookwriter, lyricist, and playwright based in New York. Some selected works include Hyena in Petticoats, The Scarlet Savior, and The Aviatrix. Lily’s work has been performed at St. Luke’s Theatre, The Laurie Beechman Theatre, The Greenroom 42, Barrington Stage Company, and more. www.lilydwoskin.com