An Innovative Approach to School Drama: Filming Begins on the MDI High School’s Fall Musical

Student actors pose for a picture outside dressed up

BAR HARBOR – MDI Drama began principal photography on its 2020 fall musical, “Ruddigore; or The Witch’s Curse,” this weekend in Acadia National Park. Determined to provide an authentic and safe drama experience for students and the community, the staff and senior student representatives of the Mount Desert Island High School’s drama program decided that filming the show would create opportunities for innovation and new learning while adhering, not only to the school’s COVID-19 protocols, but to the state’s regulations on live performances and the MPA’s guidance on co-curricular activities.

The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which is in the public domain, has been adapted by director Frank Bachman and music director Anne Leonardi and trimmed to approximately forty minutes. Jeff Zaman, who teaches filmmaking and design thinking classes at the high school, is the director of photography.

MDI Drama staff members were aware throughout the spring and summer that flexibility might be required in order to produce MDIHS’s annual fall musical, particularly after the cancellation of the Maine Drama Festival and the school’s annual two spring plays. They did not want to cancel a fall production if they did not have to. Casey Rush, the director of MDI Drama, began online discussions with the adult staff and senior representatives of student actors and tech crew members in late summer to brainstorm possibilities when it became evident that they would not be able to proceed with the fall season in the usual way. On the basis of the experiences of livestreaming the drama department’s annual Bravo Awards and the high school’s successful drive-in graduation in the spring, and with the support of the school’s administration, the team decided that the most interesting and safest option would be to film the production and present it as a drive-in movie at the high school. 

Filming the musical outdoors on location has enabled the actors to abide by safety protocols while experiencing a different kind of acting. A closed set limits the number of people present, and actors only unmask when they are about to film their scene and are appropriately physically distanced from the crew and other actors. The tech crew is learning about the different creative considerations for sound, lights, and set design in filmmaking while incorporating Covid-19 mitigation protocols as well as the intricacies of creating safe sound recording situations for the singers and “MacGyvering” sound booths in cars, as well as how to use new equipment and computer programs.

Some scenes will be shot indoors on the stage of the MDIHS Higgins-Demas theater, where physical distancing and sanitizing protocols are in place. Group numbers will be created in post-production using footage of individual actors and dancers. Rehearsals are primarily online, with some in-person rehearsals held outdoors, weather permitting. The tech crew meets once a week for physical builds, following the school’s protocols on mask wearing, hand sanitizing and physical distancing, and has online sessions to learn the principles of designing for theatre and the computer-based programs they will have to use.

This story was submitted by Chris Dougherty, Learning Center, Mount Desert Island High School in partnership with Jason Anderson, Maine DOE VPA Specialist as part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. To submit a story or an idea email it to Rachel at rachel.paling@maine.gov.