Musical Resumes Production


Theater at Overlake looks very different this year.

With past productions involving dozens of students made up of actors and production technicians, COVID-19 forced Overlake's Theater teachers to approach shows differently this year. Because of many licensing stipulations, many productions required that shows only be performed before live audiences. Not an option for us during a pandemic, Director Bill Johns and Music Director Erin Gabriel decided to take control and ownership by creating their own show. "Erin and I knew we were going to be putting on a production with our Musical Theater class, but we didn't know until later in the pandemic that there would be no live performances for over a year," explains Director Bill Johns. "The kids who signed up for the class knew right off the bat that this wasn't going to be the same class they signed up for. It was not going to be the traditional musical where the actors get scripts, you rehearse, there's a choreographer that comes in, we build a company, and finally perform before an audience."

Beside the Golden Door is a play written by Johns and his students which is set on a ship docked off Ellis Island in 1919 and comes from the stories of immigrants "My Grandfather who came over from Greece right about that time as an unaccompanied 12-year old. He didn't realize that when he got here he'd be detained and sent back to Greece because there was nobody here to claim him. It wasn't until the local Greek community rallied around him and found someone to sponsor him. While detained, he was held on a ship right off Ellis Island," explains Johns. Through their own geneology, his students created characters with most choosing family members from generations ago to the present. He also instructed them to research the pandemic of 1919 and the surge of immigration into the United States at that time due to persecution, famine, and economic opportunities. "We weren't going to hand them a script. They were going to write it. They weren't going to only memorize lines. They were going to create their own lines. It wasn't someone else's story that they had to tell. They had to make their story first," says Johns.

Bill Johns on the set of Beside the Golden Door 

With such a daunting challenge, John's students not only accepted the challenge, but they embraced it. "I really believe that it is now, in times of hardship, when it is especially important to continue," explains Reid H. who, while only a ninth grader, is an Overlake stage veteran. "Art has the ability to raise everyone up, and that is needed more than ever with everything going on across the globe. If we quit, we simply remind people that this year was horrible. But if we push on, we show them the good in what has and will happen." Another important facet of this production is the music. Working with Erin Gabriel, the students have recorded several original numbers for Beside the Golden Door with Elisa J. ('23) penning three songs. Each student recorded their own part and Gabriel is producing a finished soundtrack that includes many difficult harmonies and variations.

Through editing, actors were able to appear side by side even when only one actor was on set

When scripts, costumes, sets, and songs were completed, it was time to capture the magic. Instead of performing in front of an audience, Theater faculty, students, and adult volunteers began filming their story. Johns admits that the process has been complicated not only because it's new to our theater department, but also subject to Covid-19 safety protocols. Into the fourth scene, production was halted when COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in Washington. 

Filming a scene of Beside the Golden Door on Overlake's campus 

Now weeks on hold, the department has gotten the green light to resume production with more filming this weekend. Johns says the experience has been full of problem solving and he's learned several lessons along the way. He half jokes that it's unknown if the production will ever be fully completed. With the semester over, the students have committed to finishing the project even if it's not part of a class including Reid. "Bill and Erin have continually been adapting, and encouraging us even though it's so different from normal," says Reid. "As actors, we're still super excited about the show and it will be just as awesome as all the other years. We don’t know when it will be done, but we WILL finish though, and everyone should stay tuned."