FARGO — The school year is over, and while that normally means most schools would be dark for the better part of the next three months, in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area, one particular part of the school would usually come to life: the theater.

In most years, theater productions fill summer activities calendars, with at least six troupes in the community producing one or more shows.

But 2020 is unlike most years. With the coronavirus outbreak still a health concern, the stage has gone dark for most summer productions.

Still, a light shines for two local troupes that are planning and working to stage musicals yet this summer. Just what that stage — and the audience — might look like is still unknown.

Providing opportunities

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Classes started late last month at Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s satellite space on Broadway, Studio 6, on “The Addams Family.”

For some of the students, it was one of their first opportunities to see peers face to face in over two months, so going back to classes so soon after school let out for summer hasn’t been too much of an adjustment.

“Kids have loved it so far,” says FMCT Executive Director Eloise Breikjern.

FMCT’s Executive Director, Eloise Breikjern. Forum file photo
FMCT’s Executive Director, Eloise Breikjern. Forum file photo

But even by summer theater standards, these classes are different. With more than 50 middle school students involved in the production, organizers have split the students into five casts. To ensure social distancing, each ensemble spends two days in physical classes and the other days learning online from home.

When students are in the studio, their spots are marked on the floor and spread out to allow enough space. When students come to class, their temperatures are taken.

There won't be a traditional performance. Instead, a recording will be made of each cast, and all of the productions will be edited into one video for families to see.

“It was really important for us to do this for the children,” says Breikjern. “We felt they wanted to do something. They were tired of being on Zoom calls, like many of us. This is about giving these kids that opportunity.”

Jessica Kendall is happy to have those opportunities. Her 12 year-old daughter Josie and 9-year-old son Jimmy are in “The Addams Family.”

“It’s something they both love,” Kendall says. “This year it’s so important for them to be interacting with people their own age. We really appreciate FMCT.”

Summer students at FMCT practice in Studio 6. Special to The Forum
Summer students at FMCT practice in Studio 6. Special to The Forum

Just one week into working on the show, she’s seen her daughter rise to the process.

“Her attitude and well-being have increased substantially in just four days,” Kendall says.

Both Jessica and Josie were scheduled to be in “Matilda” in the spring, but that show was canceled.

Spring cancellations led into summer cancellations. Trollwood Performing Arts School, Gooseberry Park Players, Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Straw Hat Players and Act Up all announced they would not proceed with planned summer shows.

FMCT is still trying to figure out how they could do one more planned production, "Hairspray," later this summer.

Contingency plans

Other than FMCT, Summer Arts Intensive, a program run in conjunction with the West Fargo Public Schools, is the only other show this summer. For now.

“We know this could be pulled away from us at any time,” says organizer Bryce Henrickson, the program’s organizer.

While Summer Arts Intensive usually has a show in June with younger kids, both that show, “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” and the high school-aged production, “Footloose,” will be staged in July, pushing back the date as far as possible to hopefully wait out COVID-19.

“The goal is to hold off as long as possible to make sure there’s theater,” Henrickson says.

The 60 kids in each production haven’t had in-person classes yet and will work from home until early July. When they do start face-to-face rehearsals, their temperature will be checked each time they come to class.

That’s just the classes. Come showtime, he’s not certain how things will go.

“We’ve still yet to decide what a performance will look like,” he says, adding audiences may be smaller and vocals may be pre-recorded, as there is concern singing could spread the disease.

“It’s contingency plan after contingency plan after contingency plan,” he says.

Still, if something doesn’t seem safe, he won’t give a second thought to closing the show — and being a smaller production makes it easier to be more flexible.

“It really didn’t make sense to not try this for the families and kids,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to shut down a little company like us than Trollwood. We can take that risk.

“The kids need it and I think the community needs it and I think the families need it. Everybody would love theater to happen. The arts are so important that we’re going to hold on with faith and provide an opportunity for the kids.”