Last month, with COVID-19 advisories changing by the minute, the School’s production of The Secret Garden – the much-anticipated annual spring musical – received restrictions on gathering at a pivotal moment.
One last gathering
On the evening of Thursday, March 12, the cast and crew would have been gearing up to launch into tech rehearsals, but instead found themselves winding down, in what would be their final rehearsal. Gathering only because of a performance exemption granted by the university, during what was then a mandated test of online classes, they were set to discuss the triumphs of process and go home to mourn their hiatus from the stage.
Kelly Ward, the production’s director, sat down with the company and asked how they would like to spend these last few hours together.
“The plan, initially, was just to talk,” he said. “To accept that the majority of the work, the rehearsal period we’ve enjoyed, was the work. The performance is the carrot on the end of the stick, but they had done the work and they were telling the story.”
Ward wasn’t prepared for an impassioned plea by SDA student Lizzy Ryland, who had scored the lead role in the production, as Mary Lennox. This would be her first show with SDA, but Ryland is a senior this year – it would also be her last school production.
“I had spent so much time building up the character. From the way she walks, the way her accent sounds, her voice is pitched, how she carries herself. I wasn’t ready to let her go yet,” Ryland said. “This overwhelming emotion came over me when I started to talk.”
Ward heard her plea, as did the rest of the cast. He knew the amount of work she and her peers had put into their roles.
“The story kind of swirls around her, and she had this enormously difficult task of playing someone 10 years younger than herself,” he said. “She met it with incredible creativity and energy, and I’m really glad she asked to do it one more time.”
Sixty minutes to curtain
Ryland asked if they could prepare a final run of the show, and the cast agreed on an open rehearsal. With that, everything launched into full speed.
“Someone offered up the idea that we could invite some friends and family to come watch the final run,” said Tim Frangos, who was cast as Mary’s uncle, Archibald Craven.
By 7:30 p.m., they had gathered an audience into the Bing, and launched into the fullest production they could muster. Many of the production elements were not yet prepared, and stage management welcomed the challenge, filling in as many substitutions as possible.
“All three of my assistant stage managers were quick on their feet, so our final run of the show was able to incorporate as much of the expected components as possible,” said Chloe Willey, the production’s stage manager.
Ward himself took on the task of operating the light board, in an effort to relieve some of the crew so they could focus on makeshift props. The sound of thunder was mimicked by crumpling paper into the microphone.
Willey anticipated a need for prop garments during “If I Had a Fine White Horse,” in which the actress uses a clothing rack – which was not yet built.
“We asked the cast if they had any spare clothing with them, and I went out on stage as a human clothing rack to hand them to her,” Willey said. “It’s definitely not the same as having our beautiful scenic unit with a built-in closet, but it helped the audience to visualize what could have been, and the actress was able to work with a physical prop.”
Creating the garden from imagination
Though they did have a few set pieces loaded in, the rest were cardboard maps set onstage. The challenge for the cast, then, was creating the world in their text and movement, without fully realized lighting, costumes, and set. They ran the whole show, taking Ward’s notes from the night before and embracing their roles in this final run.
“It really demonstrated the magical part of what we do, in rehearsal every day…just an empty room, and our imaginations,” Ryland said.
“In that moment, everyone was just so vulnerable. Telling the story became so much easier than it usually was,” said Frangos. “We really found the intimate truth of the story in that last rehearsal.”
Together, they were able to find some closure in this final rehearsal, and to make sense of the bigger picture. Though it may not have been the fully dressed production, many students found that the power of the craft revealed itself in this final run.
“I found the rehearsal really empowering. I gained insight that in hard times, art can lift us up and bring us together,” said Hayley Feinstein, who played the part of Colin Craven.
A perfect parallel
It’s only fitting that The Secret Garden shares the story of isolation in the time of cholera, and illustrates the way a tiny community gathers in nature to heal and grow. The work itself lent a message of hope to artists and audience.
“It’s about being of service,” Ward said. “You will find a sort of immortality in that act of service to others. The analogy is clear, and the metaphor is very strong.”
Ryland said she realized during the run that she was helping the audience through a difficult moment, just as they had gathered to support her and her peers. The cast, crew, and audience alike shared a sense of community in the Bing Theatre, uncertain about the future, adrenaline boosted by the day’s surprises, but uniting to comfort each other.
“Despite not getting to fully put the show up, that last night was something unreal. It was a kind of catharsis for everyone there. The sheer outpouring of support and camaraderie that night has assured me that we have allies unknown and friends abundant,” said Ian Melamed, who played Dickon in the production.
In the Bing Theatre that night, there grew a sense that the SDA community would come out of this trial stronger, equipped with the power of art, and prepared for the challenges ahead.