East High students get ready to seize the day
Return to the stage in ‘Newsies’ is breath of fresh air after COVID
By Janelle Fisher
Excitement is building for students involved in the theater program at East High School as they prepare for their production of Newsies, which opens Friday, Nov. 4.
For many students in the cast and crew, this show represents their first “normal” show since COVID began, which Maureen Tjoflat, the show’s director and a teacher at East High, said created some challenges that had to be overcome to help this show come to fruition.
A learning experience
Tjoflat said changes during COVID meant that the cast of this year’s show looks different than the casts of previous shows.
“I’ve got students who would normally have been in the musical who, because of demands at home or a job or they are making up credits, weren’t able to be in the show,” she said. “So our cast is much younger. There are also freshmen and sophomores who missed some formative middle school experience — singing and acting or playing instruments.”
Because the cast has less experience than casts in previous shows, Tjoflat said preparation has involved some different elements this year.
“There’s been a lot of training, a lot of teaching, a lot of learning what it means to be in practice, how to prepare,” she said. “Just things that, for a while, kids just sort of knew and it was always easy. But there were more reminders, and now it feels like it’s a lot of teaching. Every gain that we make has been hard-fought.”
Tjoflat said teaching those fundamental skills, though, is a first step in getting the program back to a sense of normalcy.
“This year we were hoping for some type of new normal — whatever that was going to look like,” she said. “But part of that really is teaching those fundamental aspects of, what does it mean to show up and be here and organize your life? How do you pack a bag so you have everything you need? These are life skills.”
Aside from learning what it means to be involved in a show, Tjoflat said the students have also gained knowledge specifically related to Newsies.
“The kids have learned about history,” she said. “One of our history teachers came down and talked with them. We’ve looked back at prices and what things cost to understand the culture as storytellers. We have kids that are learning how to program the light board and to do sound and special effects, and the (orchestra) pit is all students.”
“Newsies is more of a company show,” she said. “This show has so often just this big ensemble. I think the other thing is that it’s a gender fluid show in that they’re Newsies — there are news boys and girls. So it gave us some flexibility there as we were looking at who was going to be auditioning.”
The large ensemble, Tjoflat said, allows students to gain comfort being on stage with the support of others while still allowing ample opportunities for individuals to shine.
“When people see the show, they will see some real standout soloists and kids who are comfortable and want to do that, and there’s opportunities for that in this show,” she said. “But then for those that want to be in the ensemble, the ensemble is often so much more busy because they’re doing six roles or five roles. The students are a newsie and then they’re a nun and then they’re playing a bowery dancer. And so I think for some of those kids, they’re excited about the energy that it takes to do that, and it gives them an opportunity to work with other kids just for moral support and fun as well.”
Tjoflat said that moral support is what truly makes theater special for students.
“For many kids, when they land here it’s just like when they’re on an athletic team or in a club,” she said. “It’s that link, it’s that personal hook. So the family aspect or the team aspect, supporting each other, it’s a real thing. I know it’s a cliche but it truly has an impact. Kids really get to know each other, some that never have talked before, and that’s one other thing we love about the show.”
With the challenges the cast and crew have faced throughout rehearsals, Tjoflat said the moments when the show starts to come together have been all the more rewarding.
“Adversity has been part of our mantra this year,” she said. “But when those glimpses come and they’re completely in tune, they’re looking at each other, they’re active, they’re excited, they’re telling a story, that’s when I say to them, ‘We have a show there. You have a show there. You just have to capture that and continue.’ So I’m really proud of that.”
Maddie Warpinski, a senior at East who has been involved in musicals both on stage and in the orchestra pit since her freshman year, said the past couple years have been hard for the theater program.
“We did a virtual show, but there was no sense of community besides texting people or FaceTiming or Zooming outside of rehearsal,” she said. “You also had to be a lot more cautious with your time because you have like an hour on a Zoom call and if kids want to leave, they just leave the call. I’m still glad that we did something — that’s definitely better than not having that experience — but it was definitely difficult, especially since a lot of it is having fun with your friends and being a part of something together. And when you can’t do that, it’s difficult.”
Warpinski plays the trumpet for this year’s show and said she is excited that this show “just feels like it’s normal again.”
Amelia Bazett-Jones, a junior at East, plays Catherine in the show and also shared that excitement for things to be looking normal for the theater department.
“I did the musical that was virtual in my freshman year,” she said. “Last year we did The Drowsy Chaperone and that was not completely normal. I think this is the first year that rehearsals are back to normal. This would be like my first completely normal musical at East.”
For Bazett-Jones, being in a “normal” production at East has been a dream long in the making.
“I have always been excited to do musicals here because when I was in middle school, I would watch East do Billy Elliot and White Christmas and stuff,” she said. “And I just wanted to be a part of it. I was a little disappointed when I came and we had the online musical, and I’m just really excited that I’m able to do Newsies this year.”
Greta Gartzke, who plays Les in the show, is also a junior at East and said it’s been a bit of an adjustment to get used to working with a generally younger cast.
“Coming back in, I think we lost a lot of people with experience,” she said. “A lot of the upperclassmen from before had been doing shows year after year and now we’re coming back to it and we have a predominantly underclassmen show and a lot of them didn’t get to do middle school shows. They didn’t begin to do even the online show so they don’t have that same amount of experience. So it’s kind of tough to adjust and sort of teach them that this is how shows run.”
Gartzke also said that even with those added challenges, getting back to the show has been a really good thing for the students involved.
“Kids were so — for lack of a better word — depressed,” she said. “But it is exciting coming back. I think everyone’s really excited to be able to do something live.”
Afton Fuson, who is one of the few East seniors involved in this year’s show and plays the role of Crutchie, echoed that sentiment, noting that getting back to live shows has been relieving.
“I love musicals, but COVID was hard,” she said. “It was weird and it was hard. But it’s good being back, it’s so good being back. It feels so incredible to be on the stage because dancing and singing feels like a breath of fresh air to me.”