Theater Companies and Menlo Drama Adapt to the Pandemic


Sophie Fang

Many theater programs have had to make adaptations for COVID-19, including taking safety precautions such as wearing masks. “I think that, like in any kind of program [Menlo has], [theater is] learning how to be much safer with larger crowds than we had in the past,” Director of Creative Arts Steven Minning said. Staff illustration: Sophie Fang.

Abby Becker, Staff Writer

The performing arts are a huge part of American culture, economy and social lives of many around the country. According to a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, 37.4% of American adults attended a live performing arts event in 2012.

However, things took a drastic turn when the coronavirus hit the United States. A survey conducted by the Brookings Institute predicted that between April and July of 2020, the fine and performing arts industries lost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales, representing about one quarter of all lost sales nationwide. Theaters have been shutting down across the country, and individuals who were dependent on the arts for their financial livelihoods have been forced elsewhere. Despite this, many theater programs, including Menlo Drama, have found ways to adapt to the virus.

One example is “Ratatouille: the TikTok Musical.” This production was crowdsourced from TikTok creators who filmed short snippets of various set designs, songs and dances inspired by the Pixar animated movie “Ratatouille” about a rat named Remy hoping to pursue culinary dreams. These pieces coalesced on Jan. 1, when Broadway released an online performance starring several famous Broadway performers.

In support of The Actors Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to people working in the performing arts, this musical has raised over $2 million, according to an announcement on the musical’s Twitter page.I think with so many theaters and performance venues closed, people like me were just missing all those things that we once really relied on and even took for granted,” elementary school teacher Emily Jacobsen, who created the first Remy-inspired song on TikTok, said to Deadline.

Menlo’s own theater community has made impressive strides in adapting to the difficulties of the pandemic, including transitioning to an online format as well as hosting in-person shows.

When the pandemic first hit, the Upper School drama program was in the midst of the spring musical, “Pippin.” Rather than canceling the musical, the actors filmed their performances individually, and these performances were edited into one seamless production, which first aired in June. Sophomore Maya Debnath has participated in three productions since her freshman year, including “Pippin.” “I was on board [with the plan to transition online], but I thought it was surreal,” Debnath said. 

More recently, for the fall play, “Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors,” the show transitioned to an in-person format. Adhering to COVID-19 precautions, the actors had to stay six feet apart at all times. When performing, they stood behind plexiglass shields, and when not performing, they had to wear masks at all times. “It was definitely a really safe way to get energy from each other,” Debnath said.

For the 2021 spring musical, the drama program is planning on putting together a compilation of monologues and dialogues called “Classic: Monologues and Dialogues,” which will be filmed without a live audience inside the new Spieker Center for the Arts. The 13 actors participating in the play, including Debnath, have been charged with identifying their own dialogues or monologues that they’d like to perform. “I’ll build the show around whatever [they] choose,” Director of Creative Arts Steven Minning said.

This format has inspired new talents, including freshman Theo Sanders, to join the Menlo theater community. “I was confident that the next play would be even better than ‘Dracula,’” Sanders said. “I thought it would be super awesome just to get to know the program with a low-risk production in a new space.”

Although Menlo Drama seems to be thriving during the pandemic, the broader creative arts community will likely experience lasting economic and social impacts from the pandemic. “After we’ve been through this, I think that there will be plays and musicals written about this,” Minning said.