EMS to Stage Les Misérables, COVID-style

October 2, 2020 / Andrea Wenger

Eastern Mennonite School is excited to offer its students and the community an outdoor musical production of Les Misérables School Edition Oct. 29, 30 and 31 on the school’s south auditorium lawn. The musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michael Schönberg is based on the novel by Victor Hugo and tells the story of French peasant Jean Valjean and his desire for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family.

School administrators emphasize that student safety and COVID-19 mitigation protocol is top priority as the production gets under way, and is in consultation with the City of Harrisonburg’s Emergency Management Coordinator on all aspects of rehearsal and staging the show. Safety measures have been at the forefront since auditions took place over Zoom and rehearsals began outside with physical distance in the first weeks of school.

The reason to pursue the production is clear for Justin King, high school principal: Community building. “In a time of crisis, and especially while living in such polarizing times, the more activities that we can safely create that help bring people together, the better,” he says.

Research is finding that anxiety and depression are on the rise among adults and children alike during COVID, King notes. “It’s critical that we make sure our community is engaging with young people in meaningful and productive ways… Seeing new and returning students connect, relate, laugh, and have something to be passionate about together — even at a distance — during this time is critical.”

“This is a challenge the school has never managed,” said Mark Gornto, EMS’ new English teacher and drama coordinator, who is collaborating with director Joy Anderson and assistant director Leah Huyard ‘16 on the production. Anderson, EMES music teacher, and Huyard, sixth grade teacher-in-training, collaborated on last year’s production of Little Women, among other EMS productions.

“All aspects of the production may need to change in a moment’s notice,” admits Gornto, who began at EMS this fall after teaching English and humanities courses for 14 years at Moorestown Friends School near Philadelphia. Gornto brings instructional experience ranging from elementary to university, including extensive experience in theater arts and film making to EMS.

“The school may not be able to meet in person due to a need to move to distance learning for a period of time, the weather is an unknown factor… there is a lot to navigate,” he admits. “We’re grateful for every day of rehearsal, what we are already building as a group, and remembering that flexibility is key.”

The cast includes 35 student actors — high school, middle, and elementary. Other students are serving as stage managers and crew.

The show will begin at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29, 30 and 31 behind the school’s auditorium. Inclement weather dates are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 5, 7 and 8 (Friday Night Live, an EMS virtual live auction, is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 6; show on Sunday, Nov. 8 is at 6 p.m.).

Seating will be limited due to COVID-19 precautions. Patrons must be masked at all times and bring their own lawn chairs and blankets to sit in 8 X 8’ blocks with no more than four people per block. Audience blocks will be separated by 10-foot rows, for extra safety.

Tickets are currently available to performers’ families and EMS community members. Remaining tickets, if available, will be made available to the public Oct. 19. Details for patrons, performance updates and a link to purchase tickets online can be found at easternmennonite.org/tickets

A video of the production will be available on line for a nominal fee in late November. The link and information will be posted here when it is available.

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