The pandemic didn’t stop a performance troupe in Bassett.
BASSETT – Thespians at Bassett High School are taking the Ancient Greek writer’s mask affinity to a whole new level.
Back around 534 BC, a guy named Thespis jumped on the back of a wooden cart and started reciting poetry. But the recitation wasn’t like the other poets of the day. Instead, Thespis said the lines as if he was the affected character.
His new art form wowed audiences, and before long, he found himself not on the back of a cart, but in a large amphitheater.
As his art form – called acting – evolved, he adopted the use of masks. No, he wasn’t slowing the spread of a deadly virus. The masks, which portrayed character traits of their own, helped a limited, all-male cast play multiple roles. They also helped distinguish members of the chorus – or ensemble – from the main actors.
Over 2,500 years later, actors and actresses at BHS carry on the tradition. While their face mask situation arose from necessity to combat COVID-19, BHS theatre director Justin Kline saw nothing short of an opportunity.
A Pandemic Performance at Bassett
When the Virginia High School League announced a one-act play competition taking place this spring, Kline jumped at the opportunity. He selected Gossip, a play by Brian Hampton.
In the one-act, a group of high school theatre students befriend a charming yet sinister new student named Gossip. She immediately makes herself right at home as she secretly manipulates and twists the truth to get what she wants. But as her new friends begin to figure it all out, they turn on her as ruthlessly as she went after them, leading to a surprisingly twisted ending.
While it’s a moving piece in and of itself, facial expressions are typically an important aspect of making the written words come to life—especially on stage. Neither the director nor the students let the masks hold them back. In fact, it sparked even greater craft and creativity.
“We are focusing on articulation especially emphasis and inflection since the masks tend to muffle the sounds of the actors’ voices,” Kline said. “Since masks are a part of life these days, we want to reflect that in the play as well. I don’t want to give away too much, but the personification of Gossip tends to wear red and before you know it, the world of the play is engulfed and plagued by the toxicity of Gossip, so we are playing with that overarching theme. Symbolism in theatre has to be one of my favorite things about the art form.”
Senior-year actors also approached the challenge creatively.
“I try to use more of my eyes and eyebrows, since those are really the only parts of my face that are seen,” said Scott Harmon, who plays Tim. “I also change the way I move to coincide with how the character is feeling in that scene as well as really emphasizing the emotion in my voice to convey what the character is feeling.”
Naomi Hairston, who plays Candy, also found imaginative ways to effectively portray her character.
“Our faces being hidden creates difficulties for the cast,” Hairston said. “Luckily for us, Mr. Kline has taken time in rehearsal and in class to teach us to use our bodies as a way of expression as well. Big movements and loud voices can convey just as much emotion as a frown can.”
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Pandemic Practices at Bassett
Even though the high school won’t open its doors to in-person learning for another month – and the play recording isn’t due until April—drama students enter the building three times a week.
“As a teacher, I knew it was important to reach the students that I could and get them back into the building as soon as possible. We are seeing the mental health of our students decline from being in quarantine and seeing that statistic is scary and a call for action. Personally, theatre has been a safe haven for me and has allowed me to build a personal community of people who support me, inspire me and help me grow as a person and it is vital that the students at Bassett have the same opportunity, especially since three-fourths of the cast are seniors,” Kline said. “I also knew we needed to plan enough time just in case a student or myself needed to quarantine for two weeks due to exposure outside of the school. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s to plan for the unexpected.”
As the students enter the auditorium ready to perform and learn, Kline noted he often feels inspired by their dedication and work ethic. Some of the students picked up jobs during the pandemic to help support themselves and their families. Oftentimes, they come straight to rehearsals after their shift ends, or they leave play practice and head to their jobs.
An Escape From Reality
In spite of the various challenges associated with the pandemic, Kline stressed the importance of the arts.
“I believe that it is important to still practice the arts because they provide an escape from reality. Artists all over the world have been so creative during the pandemic and it’s very inspiring to see. Now we have virtual theatre productions, Tik-Tok musicals, and other various ways of producing work virtually,” Kline said. “I think if you would have mentioned these things in 2019, you’d sound brave, ambitious and perhaps a bit mental. Practicing the arts while under quarantine has provided a huge outlet for people all over the world. People and artists alike who were always too busy with a 9 to 5 survival job have found the time to relive their passions and it’s heartwarming to see them find a silver lining moment in all of this.”
Students are already practicing for the virtual performance. VHSL will accept recorded submissions through April 10.
Unlike most years, where schools compete against one another at an all-day, live competition, there will be no live audience in 2021.
Oftentimes, actors express that a live audience fuels the performance because the people on stage get real-time feedback from the onlookers. Like most other things, the students are working around the differentiation.
“It will definitely be different for the actors and a challenge to overcome. One thing I love as a performer is hearing the gasps from the audience when a pivotal moment happens that they don’t see coming,” Kline said. “We have had discussions in rehearsal about this hurdle and how to stay focused and encouraged with no audience. I’m telling the actors to stay focused on the material and even though we can’t witness their reaction, we know that we did our job as performers and that is to tell a story.”
As in other years, schools first compete at the district level. The top two performers from each district move on to the regional level. The top two performances at the regional level move on to the state competition.
Kline noted that following the competition season, he’s hopeful that the students’ performance can appear on an online platform.
“…We are in the process of securing the rights so the area can see what these talented students are working on. Getting rights for virtual public performances is a little tricky, but a great lesson in theatre business and law for the theatre students to learn,” Kline said. “But we will definitely keep the public in the loop since we are already seeing so much support from them.”
A Sign of Hope
While many aspects of a traditional one-act changed due to COVID-19 constraints, Kline and the student actors pressed forward with the production.
“Putting on a performance during this time is a sign of hope. We are coming up on the one year mark since the decision to learn in a virtual setting was made, but we are seeing more and more normalcy. So it’s teaching the students that, even when it seems impossible, we can overcome hardships and come out of them stronger,” Kline said. “In the same building we rehearse, vaccinations are being administered, so it makes the light at the end of the tunnel a little closer.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at email@example.com