My virtual debut: Using virtual theater for good


Izzy Abbott

I took a deep breath as my green camera light flicked on, signifying my debut in the world of virtual theater.
When I came back from the Mountain School (TMS) in January, I was excited to dive back into life not just at Horace Mann, but also my out of school theater program. Since I was nine years old, I have been attending Applause New York, a performing arts program for kids aged
3-18. Applause has provided me not only with an outlet to channel my often con- fusing and overlapping emotions, but also a community of individuals who care for each other and me more in ways words cannot express. Despite the fact that I only spent four hours each Friday at a small, makeshift rehearsal space at a public school cafeteria learning how to act, sing, and dance, it was the high- light of my week. I made friends with and learned from the older, more expe- rienced students. My teachers’ and direc- tors’ comments built my skills as a per- former, and our performances endowed me with a deep appreciation for the arts and the effort that goes into producing a piece of theater.
When I graduated into the “A-class,” or the high school program, I was anxious to perform alongside such talented kids. I soon realized, however, that my age and (lack of ) experience didn’t matter—the older students were welcoming and en- couraged me to challenge myself in all aspects of performance. Theater began to feel like my “thing”: something that I did entirely for myself because it made me feel like I had presence despite my small size. When I step on stage and open my mouth to sing, my insecurities melt away, and I feel the joy of sharing this part of myself to friends, family, and even strang- ers,
For me, to sing for others is to share a part of myself, a vulnerability in perform- ing, that most of my peers rarely see. I don’t participate in HMTC productions as a result of my time commitments to Ap- plause (9 AM-2 PM every Saturday), and while I may only seem to talk about the- ater and TMS, many of my classmates at HM haven’t seen me in anything remotely theatrical—unless you count Shakespeare readings in English classes.
You can imagine my devastation to learn that Applause was closing its doors because of COVID-19. In light of this, the owner and founder of Applause an- nounced that we would be putting on virtual plays in place of our two musi- cals for the spring semester. Using sets, costumes, and props from our homes, we live-streamed five full-length plays over YouTube for all the world (or at least those who followed Applause’s Ins- tagram) to see. While I was skeptical at first, the process of staging, costuming, and figuring out the technological parts of the performance has taught me the importance of adapting in the face of ad- versity. While we need time to grieve and
process, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and deprive ourselves of the things we love. We have to rise to the occasion and make an even greater effort to pursue those things that help us deal with the is- sues at hand.
I take this lesson with me as I embark on my own initiative to bring theater to a local high school in the British Virgin Is- lands through a three-week summer pro- gram. While initially, I was going to phys- ically go there to stage a one-night-only event to raise money to start the school’s own theater program, being in my own virtual performance has shown me that we can transcend the physical barrier and refigure the program so it can be done virtually. A global pandemic is not some- thing I had ever accounted for when plan- ning with teachers and community lead-
ers earlier this year, but it is happening, and I have had to learn to grapple with the things I know are in my control.
For me, performing is a much needed escape from the pressures of school and the effort of getting along with my family; participating in things like virtual plays, cabarets, choirs, and talent shows has helped keep me sane. However, with no clear end to lockdown in sight, it can be disheartening to think that I may not be able to perform on a stage until at least next year. In the meantime, we have to give ourselves room to feel scared or up- set but to continue engaging in the activ- ities that bring us joy to ease the burden placed on us by the pandemic.