With mandated masks covering their faces, 24 cast members strode onto the Highland Park Band Pavilion Stage to sing the opening act.
Even with their faces covered, the message was clear. They’re out in the wilderness at Lost Loon Lodge, and rumors of Sasquatch are afoot.
The show was just a dress rehearsal for Kokomo Curtain Call Theatre for Children’s, better known as KCC, performance of “Nonsense in the Northwoods,” but the cast brought their A-game. They will be performing the play at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Highland Park in the Kokomo Park Band Pavilion.
The play is set in Lost Loon Lodge in the Maine wilderness. The lodge’s handyman, Pat, fabricated a story about a local resident getting kidnapped by Bigfoot, which was published in a tabloid, “The National Divulger,” sparking interest across the country.
Meanwhile, the bewildered staff of clueless politician, Congressman Oakley, try to keep him from voting on a bill by secluding him at the lodge. Eventually, the handyman decides to liven things up by dressing up as Bigfoot.
The play was originally planned for April, but the coronavirus pandemic changed that, and almost everything else originally planned for the show. Jeremy Leazenby-Bruce, KCC’s executive director, is directing the play, which was a change, and all but six parts were recast. Essentially, the show had to start from scratch, with precautions. Even the KCC board has stepped in to help out in various ways.
Originally, cast members were required to self-check temperatures and symptoms before attending practices. They were instructed to socially distance outside of performances, wash hands or use hand sanitizer and encouraged to wear masks when comfortable.
“I wasn’t mandating masks until Monday,” Leazenby-Bruce said. When Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered face coverings from July 27 to Aug. 26, he held a meeting with the Howard County Board of Health.
When Leazenby-Bruce found out the performers would be masked, he issued a statement that he called his “tagline.” The statement explained that the show will go on, because the KCC board believes it’s important.
“Curtain Call believes that theater programs are more vital than ever, given their ability to support the social and emotional well-being of children and families in this time of great change and trauma. Therefore, we want to continue providing these opportunities for our cast and community. We hope you will join us to celebrate the arts as we forge through this difficult time,” he said in the statement.
The recasting was lucky for Lauren Lesko, 15, and Olivia Steele, 12. The pair were excited to be cast as Fiona and Young Fiona in “Shrek:The Musical” at Northwestern schools this spring, but the schools were shut down. Lesko found out Steele was going to participate in KCC’s production and saw an opportunity to work together.
“Olivia and I knew each and we have this past knowledge that we look a lot alike,” she said. “And we were going into this thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this would be perfect for us.”
They wanted to be cast as the sisters in the play, Mary and Carrie Granola. The pair inherit the lodge from an uncle who won the property in a poker game. Mary is the older sister who has embraced her new living, and yoga-enthusiast Carrie is always complaining about nature, and constantly threatening to return to the city.
“Going into auditions we felt this emotional connection to these two sisters,” Steele said. “They kept reading us as the sisters so we had an idea. This one meant so much to us because we got to be sisters and have dialogue together.”
While the pair said they were thrilled to work together, performing in this show didn’t come without challenges.
“Obviously the face is a major part of conveying how you act,” Steele said. “Eyes are important in theater. It’s just hard to act because you’re only seeing the eyes. The way we choose to convey our tone with body language is a bigger part now.”
Lesko added that even with the discomfort of wearing a mask, getting to be in the play has been a good experience.
“Around showtime is when we get the closest,” she said. “We’re always trying to hype each other up and give out pointers. It becomes more of a family each show, and we’ve definitely gotten closer acting as sisters.”
Anthony Dunten, who is playing Congressman Oakley, has portrayed his character with goofy movements inspired by Johnny Depp.
“[Oakley is] not very smart and seems to have an enormous grudge against nature ... ,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll come off as dumb, other times I’ll make it look like I know what I’m doing even though it’s absolutely insane. I’ve tried to throw in Johnny Depp, like I’m not all here but I know what I’m doing.”
While the masks are uncomfortable, and keeping a 6-foot distance is not ideal, Leazenby-Bruce said it’s better than nothing. He said he’s thrilled to put on the performance.
“I thought for sure, going into that meeting last Thursday, that the Board of Health was going to shut us down or the kids were going to say no [to wearing masks], but everyone was on board,” Leazenby-Bruce said. “I didn’t want to see children’s theater go away. We’re doing all we can to stop that from happening.
”We’re going to rock’n’roll. We’re not going to quit,” he said. “We’re going to learn how to do theater in the new normal.”