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South Valley Journal

Third time’s the charm for getting charming production of ‘Emma’ to the stage

Feb 08, 2021 10:23AM ● By Jet Burnham

Kjerstin Cope (left), playing Harriet Smith and Alyssa Buckner (right), playing Emma, rehearse for the fall production at MRHS. (Bradley Moss/MRHS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Theater teacher Bradley Moss can relate to the main character in Mountain Ridge High’s fall production of “Emma,” a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel.

“The whole storyline of ‘Emma’ is she's trying to be a matchmaker and she's trying to force these relationships together, and everything only works out when she steps out of the way and lets things happen,” Moss explained. As Moss tried to arrange rehearsals and the final performance of “Emma,”—just as with the title character—circumstances outside his control kept thwarting his plans.

“We were originally scheduled to perform it the weekend before Thanksgiving and then the governor's mandate shut down all extracurricular activities,” Moss said. “We bumped it into early December but we had a number of students who were still in quarantine. Later in December, the space wasn't available for us because the choir, band and orchestra were doing their concerts.”

Finally, all 20 cast members were out of quarantine and the auditorium was available. The cast performed shows January 7, 8, 9—finishing just four days before MRHS was closed again for two weeks due to high COVID-19 numbers.

Being plagued by delays, shutdowns and quarantines has been a typical experience in 2020; but just as common this year has been the lesson to appreciate every opportunity that much more.

While the students were aware that at any time in the process the play could be shut down for good, they chose to focus on what they were learning through the experience, even if they didn't get to perform.

“We could look at what we missed out on, or we could look at what we discovered about this piece and about ourselves as performers as we rehearsed,” Moss said. 

“The process taught me the value of connection, both onstage and off, because we had such a lack of it at the beginning when we had to do those rehearsals over Zoom calls or we had to push back the show,” said Olympia Pead, who played Jane Fairfax. “We all bonded with each other when we struggled and then once we were on stage, we had such a great bond with each other because we appreciated being together.”

Long breaks between in-person rehearsals were disruptive but they provided students the opportunity to make new discoveries in the script, find more depth, new ideas and to push beyond what they were already doing. 

“It gave us a lot of time to think about our choices,” Pead said. “I definitely don't think I would have dove as deep into the character if I didn't have that time to really go through it by myself. I went through the script dozens more times than I usually would have.”

She said she also learned a lot about herself while seeing things from her character’s perspective.

“She has a lot of resilience and I liked finding that resilience in myself along with the character,” Pead said. 

Chelsea Rollins, who played Mrs. Elton, had felt ready to perform in November.

“After another month and a half of extra rehearsal, I realized that I could go even farther with this role,” she said.

When Moss watched the final performance, he realized the cast was at a level they wouldn't have been if they had performed it in November.

Alyssa Buckner, who played Emma Woodhouse, said each actor learned the value of working independently when they couldn’t rehearse together.

“It was a really good lesson to work hard on your own to be able to show up for everybody else,” she said. The extra preparedness helped the play come together when the opportunity to perform finally came without much warning.

“It was a little crazy in that last tech week,” said Isaac Moss, who played Frank Churchill. “We hadn't rehearsed for two weeks because it was Christmas break. We were doing costumes for the first time—and sets, and lights, and microphones and makeup. We had three rehearsal days and then the performance, so there was such a unity to the cast—we all were united to this one purpose.”

“Emma” turned out to be a good choice for a cast trying to social distance.

“Being a Regency Era romantic Jane Austen play, people kept their distances, they had bigger personal bubbles, and they wore gloves as part of their attire,” Moss said. “And so I felt we could tell the story the way it needed to be told, while keeping the actors safe and distanced as much as we could, and still make the story be authentic to how we're telling it.”

Mountain Ridge students are already preparing for another show later this month, the musical “Pirates of Penzance.” Moss said the play is an easy one to compartmentalize rehearsals; most scenes are broken up into specific groups, making it efficient for them to rehearse in separate spaces.

The play is also a public domain piece, so there aren’t a lot of restrictions for adapting the script or streaming a performance, if that became necessary.

“Eight months ago, we didn’t know if we should be worrying as much about stuff or not,” Moss said. “But now, I feel like we made the right choices to be able to give the best experience we can to the students, and still be able to have flexibility and keep them as safe as we can with restrictions that we've been given.”

There are already rough seas on the horizon for “Pirates of Penzance.” The school closure was announced just as rehearsals got underway. However, the musical, like other school activities and sports, was allowed to continue to rehearse in-person with strict precautions including regular COVID testing of students. Current performance dates are set for Feb 25- Mar 1 but, as with everything these days, is subject to change.