Theater is Once Again Maskless: UVM Actors Return to the Stage Post-Pandemic

The UVM student cast of Arsenic and Old Lace poses for a silly picture before their final performance on Oct. 30th, 2021 [Photo Credit: Eleanor Guyon].

“If I don’t act in something soon, I’m going to die,” said Luca Socks, an actor.

After only three weeks of rehearsing in various dingy classrooms across campus, the University Players, the University of Vermont’s student-run theater club, was ready to start tech week for their show, Arsenic and Old Lace, at a Black Box theater in the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington, Vermont. The shocking part? The performance would be maskless.

In a year plagued by Covid, the performing arts have suffered due to the constrictions of masking and social distancing, but that has not stopped students from finding ways to do what seemed to be impossible, holding live performances.

The University Players are an example of one of many student groups that have successfully held safe, live performances due to their own dedication and need to be involved with the performing arts.

The happiness emanating from the performers was obvious during final bows, with every face practically glowing with the joy of finally being able to act in front of an audience again. Despite an exhausting week of grueling late night rehearsals, which went straight into performances that same week, smiles were on the cast members faces right up until after the final performance on October 30th.

Socks, a sophomore, who played the timid Dr. Einstein in the production, had been feeling doubtful if they were even going to perform again after being involved in a couple of online productions, “I was like, what if one of the shows right before the pandemic was my last show, like, what if I don’t have time to do this anymore?” But Socks took a chance with the University Players.

Another actor, Samantha Paquette, who played the role of Klein, a cop, and who is also involved in The Cat’s Meow, an all-female identifying acapella group at the University of Vermont, reflected on her experience being a part of the production after months of only being able to, “sing alone in [her] car.” “I think every cast member has definitely felt that lack of connection and lack of like innate need to tell a story during COVID… we’ve all reconnected with that passion because of COVID,” said Paquette.

For many students the performing arts are more than just a fun after school activity or hobby. Many see the arts as an important community where they can be free to express creativity, or even just as an outlet to balance out the regular stresses of life and academics.

During Covid many of these vital aspects were lost. Educators have been struggling to give students these experiences after performances across the nation were cancelled in Spring 2020. Loss of ticket sales resulted in budget cuts to many theater and music departments, leaving educators without ways to provide enriching experiences for students.

Additionally, due to struggles in the professional world of performance, with Broadway closing in May and only just reopening in September 2021, fewer students have been inspired to continue on a path with the performing arts.

According to Anthony Mazzocchi, associate director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, “the stress of pandemic parenting and remote school has caused a sharp drop-off in involvement…We have less than one-quarter of students involved…”

But some students are dedicated to bringing the performing arts back to life. This is perhaps part of what motivated groups such as the University Players to endure less than ideal rehearsal spaces, masking, and a short timeline to put together a two and a half hour production (for those unfamiliar with theater, four weeks to produce a show of this length is considered a challenge).

Director Gabby White gives notes to the cast on the set during rehearsal Oct. 27, 2021 [Photo Credit: Eleanor Guyon].

Student director of Arsenic and Old Lace, Gabby White, a junior at the University of Vermont and Vice President of The University Players, took on this feat despite being hesitant initially. According to White, the interest expressed by students reinforced in her mind that entertainment was still, “essential to us, our well beings and our mental health, that we need this sort of outlet for creativity.”

In White’s experience as treasurer for The University Players the previous year, she never got to truly experience the position. Now as the Vice President, she has been working with members who have already graduated. These graduates have graciously lent their experience in order to teach new board members how to run the club.

From experiencing the dedication from previous members, to acting in a masked, live performance in Spring 2020 (held by the University Players), to now directing her own show, it has become clear to White that theater is, “not something that’s gonna die down anytime soon, we’ll always adapt.”

The performing arts are an essential platform for many and the losses these communities have suffered due the pandemic have been significant. However, groups like The University Players show the resilience of performers, both in their dedication to themselves and their audiences in these challenging times.

This unique experience has given Socks a new appreciation for theater, “You just can’t quite catch the spirit of the theater when- you’re alone in your room on a computer, talking to people who are hundreds of miles away… It kind of feels like a chunk of you has gotten stripped away, almost. Getting that back has been a relief.”

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