At the end of this month, the young performers of Ignite Theatre Company will do something they haven't done in more than a year: stage an in-person performance.
The youth theater company is the only of its kind in St. Louis. Founded by Kimberly Melahn-Kavanagh and Libby Pedersen in 2015, Ignite aims for inclusion on stage and in the audience with programming that prizes diversity and productions that cater to specific needs, such as a child's aversion to strobing lights or sharp, loud noises that have often made traditional theater unworkable for some kids.
And while that work has continued online during the past year-plus of social distancing, the actors, directors and audiences have all been separated.
"As a youth theater company, you can imagine that everything that we do is dependent on gathering large amounts of people into small spaces, so we had to quickly adjust our programming to be safe not only for our cast members but our crew and our staff and all of our families," Melahn-Kavanagh says. "We began our streaming model where we would do Zoom rehearsals, which are very challenging. We've all had to learn to teach music and choreography when there are lags in everyone's internet services. It's definitely provided new challenges."
In the Before Times, Ignite offered shows that you might not see anywhere else. Many of their performances are of the "Jr." variety, meaning they are condensed versions of full-length musicals and plays. An upcoming production of Singing in the Rain Jr. is a three-hour show reduced to 90 minutes. Longer dance numbers are cut down, along with dialogue unnecessary to the story. All changes are approved by the author or rights holder, so you know you're still getting a quality show.
The aim is to draw in St. Louis kids who might not normally find themselves in the theater and then to nurture a love for the performing arts that grows for the rest of their lives. That has included working with schools and promoting diversity and inclusion among company staff and performers, with an eye toward achieving racial diversity within that community.
"We prioritize school partnerships with the hope that we will attract young performers of color to branch into Ignite programming outside of school," Melahn-Kavanagh says. "We are constantly looking at new ways to make our program more attractive to performers of color."
Before COVID-19, an important service that set Ignite apart was its free sensory-friendly performances, which are the participants' favorite shows to put on. The house lights stay dimmed but not off, unlike in a typical theater setting. If a show has strobe lights or other lighting effects, they get dropped from the production. Actors will even wear soft-soled shoes because stage shoes are normally louder.
"For Disney's Aladdin Jr., instead of swords, we used pool noodles for a sword fight," Melahn-Kavanagh says. "Performers come out into the house before the production to introduce themselves, just because we also understand that it can be confusing or frightening if you don't understand what's happening on stage isn't happening in real life. [An] audience member can come up and see this is a costume. This isn't actually a scary sea witch; it's just someone in a costume. For these shows, every one of our performers walks away feeling like what they did was really special and that they provided something that is so rare and beautiful in the theater community."
Like most live theater, Ignite's plans hit a snag when pandemic-related shutdowns began last year. The organization had to cancel its annual all-ages family show (which allows performers, as they say, from ages 8 to 88) and the sensory-friendly shows.
Ignite moved its operations online, working through a series of challenges.
Performances had to be filmed and edited like a movie so audiences could stream them online. Shrek Jr. (yes, there is a Shrek musical) was filmed around town last summer, with each performer recording their parts separately. Picture an eighth grader dressed as the titular Shrek, but he's wearing a face mask. He's speaking to another kid dressed as Donkey as they walk together, yet completely separate, around different locations in south city. The time of day switches from day to night and back again between lines. Even with these limitations, you could tell Ignite's performers gave their all in a time when it was difficult for everyone to be under the same limelight. Watching them succeed was charming as hell to see.
An earlier production of Annie Jr. was filmed entirely on Zoom. During the show, kids pop up in boxes for musical numbers and find creative ways to interact with one another from afar. Offstage, the lives of the young performers drastically changed at school, at home, out in the world, and still in these stitched-together scenes, they make the most of it.
Singing in the Rain Jr. will be another streaming show, and then Ignite will prepare for an in-person staging of Violet, a musical that traces a scarred young woman's quest for a miracle cure.
As shows head back in front of live audiences again, Ignite has adopted strict COVID-19 safety protocols, given that most kids still aren't able to be vaccinated. That means masks for audiences and performers and temperature checks upon entry. Plus, each in-person performance is being sold at 50 percent capacity to allow for social distancing. When asked how she feels about these precautions, Melahn-Kavanagh seems happy to be still playing it safe.
"Listen, I've had small children sneeze directly into my open mouth. I would like to keep masks for a while!"
Safety plan in place, the show will go on. Melahn-Kavanagh says the performers are ready.
"Oh my gosh, they are losing it. All of our performers, especially those that have been exclusively in online school, cannot contain how excited they are to finally have a live audience," she says. "That energy and the buzz, you just don't get it through streaming musicals. That feeling of taking the final bow, having the people that you care about the most so proud of you, so in awe of what you've done. That's why a lot of us do theater, and you're missing that piece with streaming."
Singing in the Rain Jr. streams from Friday, July 9, through Sunday, July 11. Ignite's first in-person show, Violet, a production by high school and college kids, takes place at the Robert Reim Theater on Thursday, July 29, and Friday, July 30. (This show is rated PG-13, so it might be good to leave the younger kiddos at home.) These performances of Violet will then be streaming August 19 to 22. Tickets can be purchased at ignitewithus.org.
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