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South Valley Journal

COVID-19 nightmare brings Broadway dreams to RHS

Dec 10, 2020 09:39AM ● By Jet Burnham

Thayne Jasperson, an original Broadway cast member of Hamilton, Matilda and Newsies, dances with high school students. COVID safety precautions in place at the time this picture was taken were followed. (Photo courtesy of Clin Eaton)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Riverton High School drama students have had once-in-a-lifetime experiences made possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, not in spite of it.

“Students got to work with amazing professional artists during this crazy COVID time,” said RHS drama teacher Clin Eaton, who invited furloughed Broadway stars and professionals to share their skills with RHS drama students. 

This summer, students took a Hamilton dance workshop taught by Thanye Jasperson, an original member of the Broadway “Hamilton cast,” one of the only original cast members still performing in the Broadway show.

“Students were blown away because they literally just watched Thayne in the Disney+ ‘Hamilton’ production with the original cast,” said Eaton.

Senior Staley Binks said it was an amazing experience working with Jasperson, whom he described as “an exceptional dancer, an outstanding teacher and a friendly person.”

“I found myself asking him endless questions about his life on Broadway because it isn't often that you get to have a conversation with someone like him,” Binks said.

“Thayne is also super kind and patient and is a great human being to work with,”  Eaton said. The Broadway dancer enjoyed the experience, as well. He returned to not only choreograph but join in a number with students that Staley said is one of his favorite dances he’s ever learned. The number will be performed as part of the RHS Broadway Revue Show, currently scheduled for Jan. 8 and 11.

The RHS drama department has also scheduled a fall production—something most schools haven’t attempted this year—of the comedy farce, “Noises Off.”

“Farces—a very exaggerated form of comedy—are tricky to do but hilarious to watch,” Eaton said. “And we think that audiences need something ridiculous to laugh at right now.”

The play is also ideal for working under COVID-19 restrictions because it uses a small cast.

“The cast is only nine people, so it's much easier to social distance and have rehearsals, unless students get quarantined,” Eaton said.

Cast members getting quarantined and the school closing to switch to virtual instruction have affected the rehearsal schedule. 

“I would have to Zoom in to rehearsals, which was definitely not preferable,” said Binks, who was quarantined for two weeks. “But it was amazing that we could still rehearse when not physically at rehearsal.”

Eaton had anticipated such challenges and planned for a longer rehearsal schedule from the start to accommodate the setbacks.

“It is very difficult to rehearse this show if you are missing people because it is very physical,” Eaton said. “This show is so set-dependent that, when students were out, it's hard to explain ‘you run up the stairs and run out that door,’ and so rehearsals sometimes go slowly.”

Much of the complexity of the show is due to the set.

“The set for this show is one of the trickiest sets with any play,” Eaton said. “It's a 2-story set with multiple doors,  and it has to completely rotate around so the audience can see both sides of the set.”

Stage crew member Christopher Dooley said they started working on the set the very first day of class. And while they faced a lot of challenges—hanging seven doors to stay working properly despite repeated use and set movement and constantly increasing lumber prices due to fires in the northwest pinching the production budget—stage crew students also had the amazing opportunity to work with professional theater artists. 

One of Eaton’s former students, Daniel Whiting, now a professional set designer in New York, is also back home in Utah because of the Broadway closure. Whiting, with his experience designing several Broadway touring sets, helped stage crew students with the “Noises Off” set.

“It was really cool to be able to build a really good set this year and be able to say we brought someone in from Broadway that actually helped us build it and design it,” Dooley said. “It was incredible.”

Shanda Christiansen, another former student and professional set painter for Hale Centre Theatre, also lent her talent to the “Noises Off” crew.

Dooley said it was an incredible experience to see the set come together so well.

“I saw it when it was all plywood, two-by-fours and a lot of screws,” he said. “And now, there are people running around on the top floor, going all the way down to the bottom. And the fact that everything works, everything is safe, and it looks incredible is one of the coolest things.”

“Noises Off” performances are scheduled for Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 2 and 3. 

Tickets will be available for advance purchase only. Audiences will be spaced out in the school auditorium with a 25% capacity cap.

Eaton hopes these two scheduled shows will earn enough revenue to fund additional productions. Two cancelled productions last year put a strain on the budget, which is funded solely by ticket sales. However, some costs were cut this year because drama competitions, such as the High School Shakespeare Competition (where they took second place) and the Utah Theatre Conference (scheduled for January), switched to a virtual format.

Eaton has made the most of challenges and adapted to changes, despite the threat that the shows could be shut down at any time.

“We are still rehearsing and trying to give RHS theatre students as many memorable moments as we can,” Eaton said.

Bi Staley nks appreciates the opportunities he’s had despite the current “crazy time.” He realizes that if it weren't for the pandemic, he probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform in “Noises Off” because fall plays usually have much bigger casts. And while he said it has been the most difficult show he’s ever been a part of—because of the vital comedic timing and the challenges due to COVID-19—he said, “This show has definitely been a blessing, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

As a senior, Binks is determined to make the most of this “unique and unforgettable year.”

“As the president of the Drama Club at RHS, my fellow officers and I have been working to create an amazing year amidst the chaos and uncertainty,” he said.