How Do You Reach Children’s Theatre Audiences in a Pandemic?

Written by Deanna Thompson |

Mill Mountain Theatre Creates, Presents Digital Production on Broadway on Demand

When the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for Mill Mountain Theatre to present its annual children’s touring show live, the staff got creative. You can see the result online at Broadway on Demand, where Mill Mountain’s digital production of Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical is available for viewing, reaching children and adults across the country and around the world with its poignant message of equity, diversity and inclusion. (The show is available through Friday, Oct. 9. Click here to create a free account that will allow you to watch it for free.)

“That’s the silver lining in this,” said Ginger Poole, Mill Mountain’s producing artistic director. “We miss being able to present this show in person, but our reach has never been broader.”

The musical tells the story of 8-year-old Lily Polkadot, who has just moved to the “Squares Only” small town of Rockaway and is the first Polkadot at an all-Square school. Experiencing everything from daily bullying to segregated drinking fountains, Lily feels hopeless until she meets Sky, a shy Square boy whose curiosity for her unique polkadot skin blooms into an unexpected friendship. Inspired by Civil Rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock Nine.

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is exactly what the world needs right now,” said director Christopher Castanho. “Major thanks to the writers, Melvin Tunstall III, Greg Borowsky and Douglas Lyons, who have granted us this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to produce their beautiful show. I could not be more excited to share this story of inclusion and love.”

The show, funded through grants received prior to COVID-19 and an SETC Staffing Development Matching Grant that allowed the theatre to hire a costume designer, was one of 12 shows planned for the 2020 season at Mill Mountain, a professional theatre in Roanoke, VA.

“This is the only show Mill Mountain will produce in our 2020 season,” Poole said. “And what an important show. We are so proud of it.”

Creating a filmed version of the show for Broadway on Demand in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t an easy process. The theatre had to request months of extensions from the licensing group; get licensing approval to move to a digital format; develop and implement quarantine, testing and mask-wearing protocols for cast and crew; complete days of filming; and edit it all into a finished product.

 

Below, Poole shares how Mill Mountain brought cast and crew together safely on stage to produce its digital production of Polka Dots during the pandemic.

First, how did you choose this particular show?
We originally chose Polka Dots as our children’s touring production more than a year and a half ago. We loved that the show was about diversity and inclusion, that it was based on the story of Ruby Bridges, the music was fantastic, and the message was for all ages. It also worked very well with the work we continue to do with our strategic planning on diversity, equity and inclusion and our programming selections. All of that was elevated and heightened with the national reckoning on racial injustice led by the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. That gave us an added sense of urgency to bring this show to audiences this year.

How did COVID-19 concerns factor into this?
We already had received funding pre-COVID-19 for our touring production, which we traditionally present free to around 4,500 children through school, neighborhood and community groups, and we felt it was important to find a way to present this show that connects us so strongly to our community. In addition to that, looking at the size of the cast – just five – we felt like it would be workable to present it with all the restrictions that would be necessary. We worked with Broadway Licensing to get extensions of our original planned opening date in June.

Madeline Walker (Ms. Square), Alexia Buckner (Lily Polkadot), Nisa Isabella Mercado (Penelope Square), and Achilles Mulkey (Sky Square)

We started doing our homework early to determine what it would take to produce a show during the pandemic. We had two medical doctors and several lawyers on our board. We talked with research doctors at the hospital and explored CDC and state requirements. What are the resources, the equipment needed to make this happen? We developed a task force – members of the Board of Directors and staff – that met weekly by Zoom to think-tank and troubleshoot. That went on for 2 ½ to 3 months. Eventually, with indoor audiences still limited in size in our area, it became clear that a digital production was our best option.

How did you get the show on Broadway on Demand? 
We had licensed the show through Broadway Licensing, and they made it happen. They could not have been more amazing partners to work with. We were originally thinking of streaming the show on our YouTube channel or another platform, but they said this production couldn’t live on the Internet forever. Broadway on Demand is their sister company. For a slight additional fee, we got permission for the production to run there for 24 days, which was the original number of tour days.

People can watch our show free on a private link. We were able to achieve this by explaining to Broadway Licensing and Broadway on Demand that this was a major component in our community outreach and the original model was to never charge a ticket price. This is always a gift to the community through grants and sponsors. The purpose of this show on our calendar each season is to provide a theatre experience to surrounding neighborhoods, schools and community partners that may not be able to see our productions.

Where did you find your cast?
All five of the original cast members were hired as part of our apprentice company at the 2020 SETC spring auditions to perform in this show and others during 2020. This was, of course, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. When two of those individuals were unavailable at the time of filming, we were able to re-hire two members of our 2018 apprentice company, whom we had hired through an earlier SETC audition. The cast’s original 12-week contract became a 4-week contract. They were all so grateful for the opportunity.

How did you keep cast and crew safe during rehearsal and filming?
We’ve created a 25-page document on how we did this, and we will use it to help us going forward in presenting shows. When the cast arrived, we immediately tested them, along with our staff, for COVID-19. Then we quarantined the cast for 10 days in our actor housing. Each person was quarantined separately in their own room. We even purchased a set of flatware and dishware for each person. We had the Board of Directors and others delivering meals and created schedules for when each cast member could have time in the kitchen. We upped our Wi-Fi package for stronger signal, so we could do Zoom rehearsals during this time. Cast members also used the Wi-Fi to watch TV or movies in their rooms. We re-tested everyone 10 days later, and again everyone was negative.

At that point, we moved to rehearsal in-person in our 345-seat proscenium theatre. People were able to spread out in the house, wearing masks. We had plexiglass around the music director and between the piano and the singers. After the second negative test, cast and crew were able to leave their housing to go to the grocery store, pick up food, etc., so we had them fill out online questionnaires daily before arrival to help with contact tracing if necessary. We did all tech in one day.

From Left to right top row- Ginger Poole, Seth Davis, Taylor Cobb, Cole Spivia, Matt Shields, Christopher Castanho, Travis Kendrick. Front row- Anne Tillison Avis, AnnElese Galleo, Nisa Isabella Mercado, Alexia Buckner, Achilles Mulkey, Roberto Méndez, Madeline Walker.

What about filming?
We spent three full days – and I mean long days — filming, using multiple cameras and multiple angles. That’s when it felt like we jumped into another world. Unlike in live theatre, we could stop and do another take if something went wrong.

Then the hard work began – two solid weeks of 10- to 11-hour days to get the product you see on Broadway on Demand. It was very different from editing our own marketing videos –which are typically 30-second clips. This was a grueling process, editing three days of film down to an hour. The deadline was a Friday at 5 o’clock to get it to the Broadway on Demand site, and we were working right up to the deadline. Then it went live the Tuesday after that.

What was most challenging about the whole process?
Educating ourselves. The last thing I wanted was for Mill Mountain Theatre to be a headline because we did something in haste or ill-prepared.

Advice for others?
Do not cut any corners. Be the most thorough you possibly can, even to the point of what you think is overkill. We are always happy to talk and share what we did, what we learned, and help other theatres.  Just reach out to me at ginger@millmountain.org.



Written by Deanna Thompson
Deanna Thompson is editor of SETC's publications: Southern Theatre Magazine and SETC News.

 

Leave a Comment