Johnnycake transitions to online auditions, creates new Student Playwriting Festival

Last+year%27s+musical%2C+%22Mamma+Mia%21%22%2C+drew+a+crowd+of+over+600+people.+Theater+productions+for+2020-2021+have+been+modified+to+perform+safely.

Courtesy of SJS Fine Arts Smugmug

Last year’s musical, “Mamma Mia!”, drew a crowd of over 600 people. Theater productions for 2020-2021 have been modified to perform safely.

Six months ago, the Lowe Theater was at maximum capacity as 600 people crammed into the house to watch the Saturday night performance of “Mamma Mia!” As the curtain lowered after the finale number, the exhausted cast of 70 students embraced after spending months singing and dancing together. 

Today hugging is not even allowed. 

With the virtual start to the school year, Upper School theater directors met with Johnnycake officers over the summer to adapt and revamp their production plans. 

“We are committed to making sure that there is something for everyone—an opportunity out there to enjoy fine arts,” said Jamie Stires-Hardin, the lead director for “Mamma Mia!”. “We’re trying to find the best and the safest ways to make that happen.” 

This fall, directors had planned to hold the One-Acts and “Puffs,” a play written by Matt Cox about a wizarding school in England. They considered performing the shows virtually, but publishing companies, such as Samuel French and Dramatis Play Service, limit the number of plays that can be performed online.

Community is a very central tenant to the St. John’s experience.”

— Kat Cordes

After hearing what students had written and shared in Unity Council forums, Stires-Hardin was inspired to stage a student-driven production that would allow students to express themselves in the midst of the pandemic. 

“I listened to students and their writings, and that was really powerful to know that our students have a voice and want to be heard,” Stires-Hardin said. “What better way than to fictionalize it and make it into something that other students can perform and be a part of?” 

The directors asked students to consider themes of unity in their writing. According to Kat Cordes, who directed the Fall One-Acts “Zombies for Dummies” and Winter Play “The Cripple of Inishmaan” last year, the opportunity gives students a chance to reflect on how community brings people together despite being physically distanced. 

“We wanted to provide a space for people to artistically give a voice to something that brings us together,” Cordes said. “Community is a very central tenant to the St. John’s experience.”

A selection committee comprised of fine arts faculty and Johnnycake officers anonymously reviewed the submissions and chose seven works to include in the Student Playwriting Festival, which is tentatively scheduled for November. 

Courtesy of SJS Fine Arts

“We were blown away by the talent in the scripts that the students put forth,” Hardin said. “We have the capabilities here on campus between staff and students to put together a really interesting compilation of these shows.”

According to committee member and Johnnycake Historian Sophia Groen, it is important for students to have some sort of conduit for expression, whether in person or virtual. 

“Theater is meant to be a creative outlet,” she said, “and it’s all the more creative when students are performing their own work or something they want to see on the stage.” 

Cordes is enthusiastic about exploring unusual performance opportunities. Some of the plays will be set and recorded over Zoom, whereas others with small casts have the opportunity to record a socially-distanced performance. All recordings will be compiled and distributed digitally tentatively in late fall. 

“It gives us an opportunity to explore some avant-garde theater practices,” Cordes said. “Do people have to be physically close for it to seem real?” 

Johnnycake still plans to include stage managers in the Student Playwriting Festival to organize virtual backgrounds, and Johnnycake members may construct minimal set pieces and edit the performance clips together. 

Students like senior Scott Koh submitted a recording of themselves reciting a monologue to be cast for the Student Playwriting Festival. 

I have a lot of hope and excitement that things will go well this year, no matter the format.”

— Senior Karli Fisher

“Online rehearsals will take some adjusting because acting is not just vocal—there’s body language,” Koh said. “It’ll be interesting exploring how to continue acting even though we are not physically together.” 

Going virtual allowed for more rehearsal time for actors. The extra preparation time gave freshman Cora West the opportunity to hone a British accent for her audition. 

Senior Karli Fisher, who has performed in every spring musical since her freshman year, is committed to being involved in the musical regardless of its format. Fisher understands the importance of following safety precautions and feels optimistic about potential socially-distanced rehearsals. 

“I’m really excited for the prospect of being in the vicinity of others from a distance to be able to create something we’re really proud of, even in this unconventional year,” Fisher said.

Auditions for in-person, socially distant performances will eventually take place once students return to campus, but all dates and productions are still subject to change. Auditions for “Puffs” and the musical “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondhiem and James Lapine will be held through virtual submissions due Monday, Oct. 5. 

“I know that the faculty and Johnnycake officers are working really hard to make sure that we’ll have some opportunities to do theater together this year,” Fisher said. “I have a lot of hope and excitement that things will go well this year, no matter the format.”