Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

Newsome High School Theatre: Life During COVID-19

  • November 13, 2020

Producing Artistic Director Chad Cornwell’s advice for getting on top of the situation is to “realize that you are not in this boat alone.” Newsome High School Theatre chooses Opportunity Over Adversity.

“Our students have GREAT ideas about how to manage this storm. Adults cannot presume that we are the end-all-be-all of solving this [because] the young generation has some OUTSTANDING ideas that we never even thought of.” 

Any experienced theatre director will tell you that the 2020-2021 will be one for the books. “We usually have two main-stage productions, a fall play and a spring musical,” mused Chad Cornwell, producing artistic director for the Newsome High School Theatre (NHST). “We also produce a competitive one act, two theatre labs (one advanced theatre for each semester), and an access theatre production for students with special needs.” 

In the past, these have included 12 Angry Men and a one act of Warren Leight’s Dark No Sugar. “We like to explore productions that allow our cast, crew, and audiences to explore and discuss social issues”, said Cornwell. 

For a relatively recent (2004) and small annual program that comprises up to 100 serious theatre students, Newsome High School Theatre has had much more reach than would have been thought possible. “Our students regularly earn superior ratings at the district and state thespian conferences,” said Cornwell, adding, “One student was cast in the American Stage (Tampa’s professional theatre) production of Fun Home. One great success story has been Ashlyn [Jade] Lopez. We have many students now exploring performance and tech at the collegiate levels and seeing success.”

Now, in the wake of COVID, “our students, parents, faculty, and staff are all learning what it means to be flexible.” The “new normal” began in April, after the production of Mary Poppins. “We followed the world’s happenings almost every week in order to make the best decisions for our students and families and for our program,” said Cornwell.  “There are solutions out there. We did a lot of research from the Educational Theatre Association, the Broadway League, Florida State Athletic Association, and Ludus, about what safe and responsible theatre looks like and how it functions.” 

Thanks to AnywhereSeat by Ludus, Newsome High School Theatre can produce virtual-only shows and – once normalcy returns – offer streaming support for live productions. “It’s important that, as a global theatre community, we take every opportunity to participate, engage, celebrate each other at every step,” said Cornwell.  “This fall, we are producing a virtual performance of Sandy Rustin’’s Everything Seems Like Maybe, which is based on the writings of high school students and their experiences with quarantine and COVID.

“When we looked at the current health situation, we decided to move forward with a fall season,” said Cornwell. “Many schools around us and around the world are shutting down, understandably.  So we decided to produce a one act in which we could rehearse in small socially distanced groups, and a virtual production that we are producing as a film.  This gives our students both a stage-theatrical experience AND a film/TV experience.” Even more: “Our students also wrote their own original monologues to accompany the script of Everything Seems Like Maybe.”

During a normal school year, the theatre group acts like an ambassador for the arts. “We work to educate our community about theatre,” said Cornwell. Being part of a very conservative community, We program carefully and stress to our students the importance of community engagement with programs like Art In Unexpected places, where performers pop up for impromptu performances around town – promoting our productions, and just feeding art to the world around us. We draw in more students and welcome students from our feeder middle school into our main-stage productions.”

And, in the normal course of events, students literally run the show. “Our students run all tech for all productions,” noted Cornwell. “They learn and serve as stage managers, assistants, and production directors. I have learned that even greater success comes when I step out of the way and empower students to produce great art,” he concluded.

But because of COVID-19, local theatre has become global theatre. “We live and function in a global world,” remarked Cornwell. “It is important that our students’ friends and families can experience and celebrate their work.” And while the pandemic has disrupted for parents and educators, it is now part of “normal” for students. “Our students have GREAT ideas about how to manage this storm,” asserted Cornwell. “Adults cannot presume that we are the end-all-be-all of solving this [because] the young generation has some OUTSTANDING ideas that we never even thought of.”

In conclusion, Cornwell’s advice for getting on top of the situation is to “realize that you are not in this boat alone. There are so many resources out there to help keep us all afloat – just seek and ask.” And finally: “Don’t think anything is too weird, too strange, too off the wall.  Now is our time for the arts to create, to produce, to put art out into the world – the world needs us!”