After a year of darkness, the curtains rose at the Newton Theatre Company, revealing a cast of eager faces on stage and an audience ready to watch.
Theater organizations, from local to Broadway, were heavily impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. After March of 2020, all of Newton Theatre Company’s in-person shows were canceled, forcing a move to virtual performance.
Melissa Bernstein, the founder and director of Newton Theatre Company, said the Zoom format was not ideal for theater.
“The purpose of theater is to explore what it means to be human,” Bernstein said. “Any beats, or pauses, you take on Zoom, we found, are deadly. They last forever. A moment you would take on the stage that would feel full is just like dead space.”
Abby Lass, director of Digital Outreach and Programs for Newton Theatre Company, said kids were already doing school on Zoom, so “asking a 6- to 7-year-old to spend more time on Zoom — even if it’s for fun — just didn’t make sense for some parents.”
Lass pointed to a decrease in involvement from young children when theater classes became virtual. She said she tried to make the Zoom experience worthwhile. If she was tired of Zoom, she said, how could she “expect a 6-year-old to do it”?
“My co-teachers and I really tried to make it interactive,” she said.
Originally, Lass and her co-teachers planned to have their courses structured in a MasterClass style format, where participants learn from one another, but it proved to be incompatible with virtual learning.
“Doing warmups on Zoom with the kids’ cameras off was heartbreaking,” she said. “I feel like one of the most joyous parts of theater is everyone being weird in a room together.”
This spring, Bernstein facilitated prop and set making tasks for children to complete at home while conducting weekly rehearsals on Zoom for a virtual production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“We always have the kids do their own sceneries, so they had their own scenery designer with them in breakout rooms,” Bernstein said. “We just had to get very creative.”
Nancy Ghabai, a mother of two whose daughter has been participating with Newton Theatre Company for three years, said despite the remote format, the Newton Theatre Company experience was enriching.
Ghabai said that Bernstein, director of the company, “was a silver lining...She didn’t focus on one thing, she brought so much out of each of the kids, and I loved watching their confidence, public speaking abilities and musicality grow.”
At the Hyde Bandstand in Newton Highlands on June 11, 12, and 13, Newton Theatre Company and Cappella Clausura showcased an outdoor production of “Mary Stuart,” a collaboration of text and song by Friedrich Schiller.
“It felt safe to be outside without masks, doing this together,” Bernstein said.
Tatiana Ramos, who played Lord Burleigh in “Mary Stuart,” is a global health researcher and lifelong theater lover who had just joined Newton Theatre Company a few months prior to the pandemic. This was her first in-person production with the company, she said, and she “could not speak highly enough” of the experience after 15 months of at-home theatrics.
Ramos also said audience members approached her after the production of “Mary Stuart,” excited “to be able to talk to someone they just saw on stage.”
Sarah Brooke Vanaman, who played Mary, Queen of Scots, said her in-person interactions with audience members after the show were most impactful.
“Complete strangers came up to me and told me, ‘I couldn’t stand up from my chair, I was crying so hard,’” she said. “Hearing this from strangers meant even more to me than what my friends and family were telling me.”
This fall, Newton Theatre Company will conduct its children’s production, “Charlotte’s Web,’' at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton. Bernstein said they plan to have mask mandates in effect as most American children under the age of 12 are not yet fully vaccinated.
“These kids are so ready to be back together,” Bernstein said. “It will be so great to get them back on stage.”
Alexandra Evans and Sebastian Jaramillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.