New Brunswick

School theatres stay dark as students watch opening dates of their musicals pass them by

Costume-making, rehearsals, and set design were in full swing for April shows when COVID-19 shut everything down.

N.B. Drama Festival will not go ahead with schools closed for remainder of school year

Casey Quigg (front left) said she dreamed of receiving the Outstanding Contribution to the Musical Program award at her high school in her graduating year. (Casey Quigg/Submitted)

"I didn't prepare myself for this agony," said 17-year-old Casey Quigg, who, in her senior year, had been thrilled about landing a lead dance role in Crazy for You, the spring musical that was supposed to open at Kennebecasis Valley High School in less than two weeks. 

April is normally musical season -- when school auditoriums across New Brunswick are bursting with music and young actors get their moment to shine after weeks of intense rehearsals, preceded by nerve-wracking auditions. 

But all is silent this year as high school drama productions at Sussex, Simonds, Rothesay, Saint John, Hampton, Leo Hayes, Woodstock and Miramichi Valley, to name a few, were halted by COVID-19. 

Quigg, who has studied dance since she was two, had helped a dozen Follies Girls learn how to tap. 

Casey Quigg, a Grade 12 student at Kennebecasis Valley High School seen here rehearsing the songs for the musical, Crazy for You, said she's upset she will miss out on many of the traditions of being in her last high school musical. (Casey Quigg/Submitted)

"It's a crazy, crazy tap musical," she said. "Everyone had to buy tap shoes. We spent probably about a month, learning the musical, just on tap."

Quigg says "costume moms" had been busy sewing. Volunteers were on standby to start building sets. She had memorized her lines.

Now she feels terrible for all the kids who won't get a chance to perform this year and maybe never will. 

"Grade 12 would have been so special because it's your last time ever. You have the right to cry and to own the stage one last time. There's so many traditions -- like, more than I can even count -- that I couldn't wait to do as a grade 12 student."

Rites of passage lost

Suzanne Yerxa, director of the New Brunswick Drama Festival, said the festival will not go ahead after schools were closed for the rest of the year. (Suzanne Yerxa/Contributed)

Suzanne Yerxa, who has been involved with the shows since she started teaching at KVHS in 1978, said many students "find their tribe" in musicals and learn to celebrate each other's success. 

"If you're in the chorus, and you watch your lead who starts out very slowly and by the end of it, is just nailing that song or convinces you in a scene, that's exactly what they were feeling .. well, there's no price you can put on that," said Yerxa, who is also director of the provincial drama festival.  

Thursday afternoon, on the New Brunswick Drama Festival homepage, an automated countdown clock optimistically announced 31 days, 20 hours and 55 minutes until 1500 people, mainly students, from 42 middle and high schools across New Brunswick, had been due to gather for six "jam-packed days" of drama workshops on the St. Thomas University campus.  

But, all hope was dashed earlier in the day when Minister of Education Dominic Cardy announced that schools would be closed for the rest of the year.

Yerxa deeply regrets that it won't move ahead

She said school theatre is a rite of passage for many young people, who learn to test their own limitations and come to find they are capable of more than they ever dreamed. 

"And other people learn from that, too. They see people taking a risk and they think, 'You know what, that wasn't so dangerous. Maybe I could try something like that," said Yerxa.

The rehearsals create a kind of fellowship, she says, that also gets hearts beating. 

"We call them show-mances, because people end up dating, because it's so intense."

Cancelled rituals

Casey Quigg said she helped teach a dozen Follies Girls learn how to tap for their high school musical. (Casey Quigg/Contributed)

Quigg counts herself lucky because she did join the musicals back in grade nine and she'll always have her memories of Footloose, Hello Dolly and the Wizard of Oz.

But she does feel robbed of what should have been an emotional finale on stage.

She says nothing compares to being a senior and knowing it's your final performance in front of your family and neighbours. 

Since 2001, it's been a tradition at KVHS to award a student for Outstanding Contribution to the Musical Program. That student is given a shirt before the closing night performance and the student who got the shirt the year before, comes back and gives a speech.

"Everyone claps and cries," said Yerxa, who says high school drama productions often have their own rituals. . 

When the final show is over, and everyone gathers on stage for the final curtain call, the actor with the shirt, takes a last bow, kisses their hand and then hits the stage with that hand. 

Yerxa says that's when everyone in the audience who knows the tradition roars with approval and loud applause. 

"I've always dreamed of having that shirt," said Quigg, "It sucks."

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