– by Svetla Tomanova
At the beginning of the pandemic, theatre came to a standstill. Then it made way for many “Zoom plays” and “Zoom musicals” to be written out of necessity, as was the case with “Unmuted.” Live theater is back and, “The show must go on.”
At the beginning of March, Salem High School competed with three other schools at the Virginia High School League (VHSL) One-Act Festival in Charlottsville.
Salem’s act was unique in several ways: the only school that brought a musical, it was the first time Salem presented a musical for the Theatre Festival, and the first time Salem won the state championship.
“The act was powerful and performed in a way that could tap into the audiences’ emotions as we all lived that virtual experience,” said Salem Principal Leeane Turnbull. “I am proud of the risk Ms. Vogt took and how this production showcased not only the talents of our students, but also reminded us of their resilience.”
Salem’s team consisted of 21 participants: eight were cast members and 13 were on the production team. They won first place at Sectionals and went on to win the 5A Regional Championship, which secured their spot at the VHSL 5A State Theatre Festival.
“We were ranked first place unanimously by all four judges,” said Christa Vogt, theatre teacher at Salem’s Visual and Performing Arts Academy.
One of the judges even gave them a perfect score of 100. Another one said, “Take this show on the road!”
“Unmuted,” written by Alvaro Saar Rios with music and lyrics by Deborah Wick La Puma, is a show ultimately about survival. It pokes fun of what we had to do to stay relevant and engaged in order to survive the 2020-21 school year, said Vogt. It is a cathartic spoof of the harsh realities that we lived just a few years ago. Live theatre is back, and it is healing to make fun of ourselves with respect and love, she added.
It was composed during the height of the pandemic to be performed as a virtual musical by middle school students on Zoom. It is set during gym class where the substitute teacher “gets dropped off the call.” The students celebrate their “Zoom freedom” and play virtual “Secret or Dare.” They bond over class time and ultimately share that they miss school, “real school.”
The show closes with a heartfelt song (performed with an intentional ebb and flow of levity) about all the everyday things they miss about “real school.” They miss moving desks for projects, riding the bus, raising their real hand, having a snow day, sharing a pencil and calling their teacher “mom.”
Bringing “Unmuted” to the stage did not take a long time. Vogt held auditions around Thanksgiving and rehearsals the first week of December.
Salem’s team used their creativity to comedically shift the performance from virtual to live. The prop manager, Phaedra Diacopoulos, created the “Zoom squares.” The effect was quite funny to see characters moving around with a black square frame attached to them, said Vogt. Another one of their adaptions was the “screen sharing.” They simply had a crew member walking onstage and holding the images that were being “screen-shared.”
“So many theatre artists and educators did what we had to do to adapt to the world shutting down,” said Vogt, an originator of the idea for the “Zoom squares.”
The choreography was unique too, according to Melaina Robinson, assistant stage manager.
“The story was relatable and the way the cast portrayed the characters — they turned a depressing situation into something I can laugh at,” said Mina Petromanolakis, crew member, grade 10.
According to another cast member, Evie Lewis, they won because they came with something fresh, had energy and trusted the process and themselves. Jianna Thompson, a stage manager in grade 10, will cherish this moment for a very long time.
“We won because we didn’t think we were going to win,” said Caleigh Howell, cast member, grade 11. “Mrs. Vogt hit the nail on the head by picking something we all could relate to and laugh at.”
The play incorporated a couple of the “Zoom school” elements into the costume design – all the characters wore pajama pants and T-shirts with messages such as “Just Breathe,” “Chin Up,” “Stay Positive,” and “Don’t Give Up.”
“I felt so proud of everybody, and it was one of the most exciting days of my entire life,” said Jasmine Thomas, cast member, grade 9.
“It’s a great feeling to make history,” Isaiah Bolden, costume manager in grade 9 remarked on this accomplishment.
Indeed Salem made history: This was the second VHSL State Theatre win for our division – the first time was in 1989 by First Colonial High School. Keep an eye out for more great performances from Salem High: “Acting I: Evening of Shorts” (April 26-27), “24-Hour Theatre Festival” (April 29), as well as the senior class’s “Fringe Festival” in May.