EDITOR’s NOTE: Late last year, Broome Arts Mirror writer George Basler reported on how local arts organizations had been “Coping with COVID.” His series continues today with a look at how local high schools are trying to maintain their annual spring performance tradition. (A special thank-you to Rich Ives, who made his annual compilation of local high school musicals available to BAMirror.)

By George Basler

Spring is normally when local high schools present major stage productions. But this isn’t a normal spring. COVID-19 restrictions have led most schools to cancel their shows.

A few are carrying on, using technology to bring productions to audiences:

  • Binghamton High School is producing a radio play that will be streamed free of charge at 7 p.m. Friday (March 19) on www.BroadwayOnDemand.com.
  • Vestal High School has received a remote performance license to stream Les Miserables School Edition at 7 pm. May 21 and 22 on Showtix4u.
  • The Chenango Valley school board has approved recording and streaming Disney’s High School Musical on June 4, 5 and 6. More details will be coming as the streaming dates approach.
  • Greene will be streaming Little Shop of Horrors May 14 and 15. Again: Check back here for details.

Other are still hoping to salvage part of the live theater experience:

  • Owego-Apalachin High School is considering a small cabaret or scenes program, but not a full production, said vocal music teacher Megan Burrell.
  • Union-Endicott is working on plans, but until the health department gives schools the go-ahead, along with guidance and parameters, nothing is definitive, music teacher Joe Brainard said.
  • Maine-Endwell is considering presenting the 1967 Cinderella, but no details have been worked out.
  • Seton Catholic Central will stream its live concert performance of Les Mis (school edition) April 29-May 2.

Over the coming months, Broome Arts Mirror will profile these productions, beginning with Binghamton’s The 39 Steps, a romantic thriller  by Joe Landry that mixes spies and trickery with some humor and vintage sound effects. It was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film of the same name.

As Larry Kassan, coordinator of special events for Binghamton schools, explained, the production stems from a directive from Margaret McGarry, director of fine arts for the school district, to develop ideas to salvage part of the performance season,.

“We decided on a three-show season,” Kassan said. The first, a holiday concert in December that was streamed online on Facebook, showcased BHS’s music program. The third — a “Broadway Under the Stars” musical cabaret June 2 at the Ross Park Zoo amphitheater — will conclude the school’s three-show season.

This week’s radio play, which can be viewed at no cost, will showcase the school’s acting program. Doing it was an easy decision, said Ariana Koniuto, theater teacher at the high school. Binghamton students had performed a radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life several years ago and really enjoyed it, she said. “We knew we could do another one even with COVID-19 restrictions.”

The 39 Steps will transport audience members back to the glory days of radio drama with a set designed to resemble a radio studio circa 1940, complete with an applause sign and vintage microphones.

The set also features COVID safeguards, Kassan said. When the cast recorded the show March 10 on the stage of Helen Foley Theater, the 15 actors performed behind large plexiglass screens that resemble “broadcast booths.” They were 12 feet apart, with no more than three actors on the stage at the same time. When not at a microphone, they wore masks. Actors had their temperatures taken before both the dress rehearsal and the recording session.

COVID-19 restrictions meant cast members had to rehearse over Zoom, not in the person. This created some real challenges, said Koniuto, who directed the show. Normally rehearsal time is an opportunity to “create a community” among cast members, but, she acknowledged, this was difficult over Zoom.

Still, Koniuto emphasized, the students “have risen to the challenge” despite occasional technical glitches and the fact that they were apart from each other.

Two cast members — Yaseen Anderson and Kate Salamida, both 17 — said they were simply grateful they had the chance to perform a show in their senior year.

Anderson was familiar with old-time radio shows from listening to them on SiriusXM, but Salamida hadn’t hear of radio drama before beginning work on The 39 Steps. “I thought it would be a fun and challenge,” she said.

Both she and Anderson agreed that performing the radio show required a different approach from a live stage production. Instead of using their full bodies to play characters, they had to depend on vocal and facial expressions and small gestures.

Unlike The 39 Steps film, the radio play some has tongue-in-cheek moments such as commercials that make humorous references to other Hitchcock films, Kassan said. One jingle advertises the Bates Motel with a hot shower in each room, a reference to the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

This may bring chuckles to older audiences, but it created some confusion for the student actors, most of whom had no knowledge of Hitchcock or his movies, Kassan conceded. They had to be brought up to speed (something Anderson and Salamida readily acknowledged).

While the two students missed having a live audience, they enjoyed the experience. Salamida said she loved her character and appreciated the plot’s twists and turns. “It’s definitely been fun,” Anderson added, noting that he was able to work on his radio voice.

How to watch The 39 Steps 

  • Visit www.BroadwayonDemand.com to register with your email and create a password. This is completely FREE. It is suggested that you do this in advance and not the day of the performance.
  • On Friday (March 19), sign on approximately five to 10 minutes prior to the 7 p.m. curtain. There will be a countdown clock. (If you sign in late, the show will be in progress.)
  •  Once you sign on to BroadwayOnDemand, go the menu page (on the top left of the page). Click “Show Share.” Go to the horizontal scroll labeled “Live Events.” You will see a poster for the show. Click PLAY. It is recommended that you familiarizing yourself with the process prior to the broadcast.