Less Miserable in time of COVID: EMS Stages Les Misérables School Edition

November 10, 2020 / June Miller
Senior class members of Les Mis production, fall 2020
Senior class members of Les Mis production, fall 2020

Editor’s Note: Safely staging Les Misérables School Edition at Eastern Mennonite School during a pandemic required creative thinking by faculty and staff and broad community support. In addition to the dozens of hours of rehearsal in varied weather, parents and volunteers from the local community built the expansive outdoor stage and created props and costumes. Professional quality light and sound technicians with connections to the school were available due to cancellation of previously scheduled gigs. Special thanks to Blosser Electric, Southard Audio, and EMES parent Scott Huston.

Family, friends and the public, eager for live entertainment — even in eight-foot square blocks spaced 10 feet apart and limited to 250 people — quickly purchased 529 tickets for three shows.

Twelve cast members and Mark Gornto, drama coordinator, were new to the school this year. Author June Miller reflects on the experience through those lenses in this write up. Miller works for Virginia Mennonite Conference and is an EMS parent. Daughter, McKenzie ’23was a member of the cast. June and her family moved from Calgary, Alberta, to Harrisonburg in July 2020.

Less Miserable in time of COVID: EMS Stages Les Misérables School Edition
by June Miller

In preparation for school year, Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) determined they were able to observe CDC guidelines with in-person school. There have been many work arounds, especially in the area of music and arts where extra precautions needed to be implemented.

So, why attempt a musical? Originally scheduled for January, the timeline to production was moved up in order to accommodate an outside performance. With only six weeks to produce, EMS scheduled Les Misérables School Edition for October 29, 30, 31 with rainout dates for the following week. Creativity often is at its best when we have restrictions. A multi-level platform, a 10-foot pole, and a soccer field were the beginning elements.

The dream of the production came before the pandemic, when the school secured the rights in late winter 2020, banking on the talent of the upcoming students. With the many losses that followed, Joy Anderson, EMES music teacher and musical director, said we were “resolved to do whatever we could to keep alive the possibility of staging Les Mis in some form.” But with all the challenges, “could we do the show well?”she wondered.

Les Mis requires a large cast. Adding 10-ft distancing albeit with brief “incidental contact” restrictions on singing outdoors, and losing key students due to enrollment changes and availability, challenges abound. Anderson credits the “fleet of helpers” and the addition of talented to new students in navigating these challenges. Several roles were filled by students who joined EMS this fall, including three who had had starring roles at area public schools in the recent past.

For new students, the show provided a way to make new friendships despite masks and social distancing, observed Anderson and other teachers and students.

“I thought it would be impossible for me to find people to make friendships with,” said Melody Flanders ’21, who transferred from Turner Ashby this fall and played the role of Eponine. “Being in this show has made it super easy.”

Mackenzie Miller, sophomore, also sees this experience as a “great way to get to know people better.” Backstage is a place to find friendship and encouragement. “Always so positive and helpful to one another,” is how Kate Weaver 24, a transfer from Broadway, described the cast.

Additional Coverage

A streamed video of the production is available for a nominal fee beginning Nov. 25. The link to the service will also be made available on the school website’s ticket page.

WHSV TV-3 coverage

Download the playbill to read cast and crew bios and director notes

Check out some more photos from this story

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