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Article Published March 25, 2021

COVID Creativity: Keeping Theater Lively in a Virtual Age

By Kelley Fryer/ and Pem McNerney/

Like most of us, Billy DiCrosta and Neil Fuentes, owners of New Haven Academy of Performing Arts, 597 Main Street, East Haven, were shocked by how quickly everything shut down in March of last year due to the pandemic.

“It was incredible to see how a pandemic was able to stop the entire world. Having lived through H1N1 in 2009, we never thought what happened in 2020 would ever be possible,” says DiCrosta.

They were equally surprised, and delighted, to find out how resilient their children, teens, parents, and coaches were.

“It was amazing to see everyone willing to easily adapt to the situation by thinking outside of the traditional theater box and becoming creative with the help of their coaches,” he says.

In particular, virtual productions turned into a new form of enrichment and education for the students, and they became a rich source of entertainment for families and friends.

Still, the process was arduous and painstaking by necessity, so that everyone could be kept safe.

Keeping Theater Alive

“We sat down as a team and designed a plan that would allow us to keep live theater alive following all CDC guidance,” he says.

The teens, after showing proof of health, had to agree to spend the three weeks of the program with their immediate households and the academy only. Temperatures were taken, hands were washed, masks were worn, guidelines, even as they shifted from week to week, were followed.

And they turned technology to their advantage, DiCrosta says.

“I’ll give you an example: For the teen’s training intensive, week one’s goal was to learn and correctly execute songs, lines, and everything that has to do with speaking out loud. We decided to do that week fully online, with the help of our guest acting coach Carla Stockton [from New York City], so kids were free to sing without a mask in their homes and experiment with lines, practice dialogues,” he says. “Then after that, we had the kids record all their voices at home. Those files were sent to Mr. Neil, who edited all their voices together.”

Once the sound was recorded, the kids were brought back into the studio, in person, to learn choreography and blocking without having to worry about live singing.

“For filming, we divided the cast in half where the ensemble and principals were separated,” he says. “We filmed all the ensemble scenes separately, which were later projected during the performance creating the effect to have a full cast on stage.”

The end result was the kids in the projection appearing to interact with the live performers.

Even with all of the successes, the virtual shows were a challenge to execute and it was a year full of learning experiences, and trial and error, for all involved.

“With every show, we realized things that worked or didn’t work, such as sound technology, cameras, and Internet speed. So many things to take into consideration,” he says. “We had to change our thinking—how do we make live theater still feel live on a computer screen?”

Since traditional theater wasn’t an option, they transformed their space into a live studio with the right lighting and sound.

They plan to continue streaming the shows for now, at least the ones that offer streaming rights, and have been delighted to find their audience expanding to include out-of-state family members who might not have been able to enjoy the performances in the past.

A Force That Keeps Kids Positive

Still, they both agree, “we would be happy to do away with having kids performing only for cameras and teachers. There is nothing like the energy of a live audience...When the time is right and we can welcome them back safely, we know everyone will be over the moon to be with us.”

One important lesson that was reinforced: “[T]heater is a force that keeps kids’ minds in a positive creative mode. It is an activity of personal discovery and self-worth. We want the community to continue to be even more supportive of the arts in general. We have so many amazing projects coming to the community of East Haven and beyond with the construction of our new theatre that was approved to be built before the pandemic. This theater will serve as a headquarters for performing arts education bringing not only performance education but also technical education such as set building, live theater lighting and sound, and more.”

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This is one in an occasional series about how individuals, organizations, and businesses survived the COVID-19 pandemic. To recommend someone or something to profile, email and write COVID Creativity in the subject line.