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Acting and singing with masks: With emotional showcase, CMT leads the way

I glanced at my watch. One minute to show time. I almost forgot to use my phone to take a photo of the theater program and post it to Facebook. (A tradition that I sorta think I started many years ago, though who can say for sure.)

This was the first live performance I’d been to since Good Company Players’ delightful “Enchanted April” way back on March 8. One-hundred-thirty-five days ago. No wonder I was a little rusty in my usual routine.

That said, the Tuesday dress rehearsal of “Music in a Climate of Change,” a cabaret-style production presented by Children’s Musical Theaterworks, was unlike any performance I’ve seen.

The 14 audience members wore masks. Chairs were meticulously spaced 6 feet apart.

The nine actors wore masks, too. The “backstage” area consisted of cubby holes for each actor on stage left and stage right.

Social distance reigned.



If you’d told me six months ago that I’d be in a rehearsal space at the Sierra Vista Mall, sitting far enough away from the nearest audience member to make you think I hadn’t showered in weeks, ready to watch a bunch of performers who had to talk and sing through cloth masks — well, if you had told me all that, and throw in the fact I would be crazy excited for the experience, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

But that is the reality of our moment.

If the idea of performance is going to scrape by in these frustrating times, this just might be the look of things for a while — even if that performance is shrink-wrapped and sanitized, like this one had to be. What impressed me about the CMT performance, which was the product of an intensive acting and singing summer workshop, was how much emotional intensity was conveyed, even with the social-distancing limitations.


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Tuesday’s performance wasn’t open to the public. The tiny, invited audience consisted of board members, donors and CMT staff members. On the next two days, a select group of parents got to see their children perform in one of two age groups: 12-17 years and 12 and under.

I saw the older group perform. The director was Catriona Fray, a former CMT star who went on to graduate from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, and has appeared in New York City at Town Hall, Feinstein’s/54 Below, (Le) Poisson Rouge, and the Duplex. She also music directed and choreographed the show.

Among the things I really liked:

It was personal. Each of the actors spent time studying beginning playwriting and solo performance. They wrote monologues to introduce the songs they selected. These moments were powerful and authentic. Jake Carson, for example, talked about how he loves both theater and water polo, and it’s been hard as he approaches a time when he will have to commit to one or another. That fork-in-the-road moment is part of growing up, he realized. Other monologues touched on intense themes, including suicide and alcoholism. I thought they were riveting.

The songs were moving. The lineup included such newish numbers as “A Musical” from “Something Rotten!,” “You Learn” from “Jagged Little Pill” and “Waving Through a Window” from “Dear Evan Hansen.” One of my favorite performances was by Haileigh Anderson, who delivered a strong rendition of “Say Something” from “A Great Big World.” And Rebekah Williams’ performance of “Lord, I Need You” showed off her stirring vocals and stage presence.

The costumes rocked. Each cast member got the chance to design his or her shirt (there was an “earth, wind or fire” theme going on, connected to the “climate of change” theme for the show), plus each got to do a mask. Perhaps in the theater of the near future, actors will wear elaborately designed masks related to their characters — sort of a twist on Japanese Noh theater.

The direction was strong. Fray (working with Lucido, as the acting coach), Nicole Wagoner (assistant director and choreography), Jordan Williams (musical arrangements) and Kyra Smith (scenic design) imagined a tight, compelling show that emphasized individual strengths and good ensemble numbers. Each and every cast member — Aaron Nevarez, Brynna Griffith, Ella Rutiaga, Emily Swalef, Samantha Shaheen-Smith and Stella Freeman — had a chance to soar.

The words were a lot easier to understand than I expected. Fun fact about masks: They make the performer think even more about diction, enunciation, breath support and volume. I understood almost every word. (And just think how great they’ll sound when they take those masks off.)

The cast was thrilled to perform. After the performance, some of the actors took turns addressing the audience from the stage. “Being able to have the opportunity to affect somebody in a positive way through our performance is really moving and great,” Williams told us.

What does all this mean for performance in the near future (and, perhaps, beyond)? Like so much today, it’s hard to predict. But I detect a strong and growing movement in the performing arts community to adjust and adapt. Lucido, a longtime director and actor, is at the forefront of this mindset. (She just released a casting call for adult actors for CMT’s December community-theater production of “Matilda” with the stipulation that the whole show could conceivably be performed in a socially distant mode.) And if that means putting on masks and putting actors 6 feet apart, maybe that’s what will have to happen. Referring to what we’d just seen on stage, “If this is how we have to do it, we have to lean into it,” she told the audience.

Two other thoughts: I took my phone photo of the program, but then was so “out of shape” that I forgot to post it on Facebook. So, here it is:

And, I’d be remiss without mentioning the applause. After the opening number, the audience clapped long and loudly, and I thought to myself: This communal act of slapping our hands together to make noise is part of the magic. You have to be in the same room. It doesn’t work on Zoom. My goodness, how I’ve missed being able to applaud. Thanks, CMT.


Upcoming CMT ‘Skillz’ Classes

Children’s Musical Theaterworks is taking applications for its fall ‘Skillz’ classes that will run Aug. 24-Oct. 17. Available classes are:
  • Intermediate Musical Theatre Dance
  • A Season of Scene Study
  • Monologue Workshop
  • Intro to Musical Theater/Acting
  • Musical Literacy & Stylizing for the Singing Actor
  • Integrating Movement & Dance
  • Private Acting/Audition Preparation
  • Private Voice Lessons
Social distancing and masks will be required. Classes are limited to 10 students. Go to cmtworks.org for details.



Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (4)

  • Thank you for sharing the experience. It sounds wonderful.

    reply
  • James D. Mendez

    I’m a bit teary-eyed. I have been to a number of CMT shows. I really miss the live shows. Thanks for the reporting.

    reply
  • GailMarshall

    I’m excited to see peformances on any terms. I’ll be happy to do any accommodation. I miss them so much. Congratulations on teaching the students and audiences to meet the moment. We can make this work, even if we have to pay double, it will be worth it! Thanks, Donald, for capturing this historic moment in kical theater history.

    reply
  • Jackie Ryle

    I so appreciate reading this and seeing what is happening. Way to go, CMT! Thank you, Donald

    reply

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