‘Birthed by circumstance’: SoHi takes on COVID-19 in spring play

Soldotna High School students will share their COVID-19 experiences beginning on April 8 during a three-day in-person performance of “Pandemic: A Retrospective.”

Director Sara Erfurth, who is also chair of the school’s English department, described the show as “a kaleidoscope of different viewpoints” and said she hopes it will be a cathartic experience for students.

The performance will be broken into two acts portraying the lighter and darker aspects of the pandemic.

The first act will feature the Don Zolidis 2020 comedy “10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine.” The play was written for actors to perform online through platforms like Zoom. SoHi’s performance re-imagines that concept. Cast members will talk onstage to a computer using Zoom, with the feed from that computer projected onto the wall behind them.

The second act, Emily Hageman’s monologue drama “The Pandemic That Didn’t Define Them,” features more serious monologues about the pandemic.

“I’m hoping that when the students come and see this, they’ll see a piece of themselves onstage and they’ll maybe feel like their emotions are validated or that their experience is shared,” Erfurth said. “They might get maybe a little bit of closure from that.”

Soldotna High School was one of many schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that switched between operating in person and 100% remotely during the first two quarters of the 2020-2021 school year. At all district schools, students in every grade were allowed to return to in-person learning five days a week on Feb. 1, with COVID mitigation protocols still in place.

The performance directly responds to the changes students had to make in their lives because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In choosing a play that deals with the pandemic, Erfurth said she was able to accommodate topicality with keeping cast members safe.

“A lot of this is kind of just birthed by circumstance,” Erfurth said. “It is a struggle to try and find a play where you can meet protocol of making sure your cast is able to stay safe and … not put people at risk with a show.”

“10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine,” for example, looks at the different ways people stayed entertained during quarantine, like hosting solitaire championships.

The second act is a compilation of different student perspectives of the pandemic and have a more “serious” tone. One is from the perspective of a student who works at a grocery store and watched the pandemic “bring out the worst in people.” Another is told from the perspective of a student whose grandfather is hospitalized with COVID-19. Others are about trying to find a rhythm and stay motivated while the world is on pause.

“They’re all different perspectives but I think it has a really multi-layered way of kind of looking at what this year has been like and hopefully accurately capturing that experience for students,” Erfurth said.

Students’ experiences were sometimes shared. Teachers tried to work around different circumstances and families took on new challenges with at-home schooling. Erfurth said she hopes they both are able to more clearly understand what students have been going through.

“A lot of parents really struggled with watching their kids go through these emotions during the pandemic,” Erfurth said. “I know a lot of them felt very alone. They felt like they weren’t sure how to help their kid [or] help their student with either school or with the emotional effects of being so isolated and cut off.”

The cast includes 10 students, who each play one role in each act. Erfurth said that holding auditions for the show was business as usual, but that mitigation protocols impacted how the group was able to rehearse. Having monologue performances meant that not everyone in the cast needed to be at every rehearsal, so Erfurth staggered rehearsal times and worked with three students per day. The first time the whole cast comes together will be the week the show opens.

“I have been able to work one-on-one way more than I normally am able to, but it also is kind of hard to lose that cast camaraderie that you build,” Erfurth said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to that maybe more normal style of theater.”

The school’s winter performance of “A Christmas Carol” was broadcast on KDLL, with all rehearsals conducted via Zoom. Being able to perform in front of a live audience for their spring show, Erfurth said, will make a big difference for the actors, who will be able to connect with how people in the audience are reacting to their performances.

“The easy option would have been to throw up our hands and say like, ‘Well, you know, it’s just not the year for it.’ But I wanted to make sure that we were really able to keep this option for kids because so many of them do get a lot of confidence from theater; they get a lot of self worth from it. It’s community building,” Erfurth said. “Very much so, it is something that kind of helps kids stay motivated and I really enjoy working with them on this, so I’m just really grateful that we get an opportunity to do it this way at all.”

Performances of “Pandemic: A Retrospective” will be shown on April 8, 9 and 10 at 6 p.m. in the Soldotna High School auditorium. COVID-19 mitigation protocols will be observed at live performances, with a masked and a socially distanced audience. People are asked to only buy their tickets online so Soldotna High can make sure to cap in-person tickets once the social distancing threshold is met. Tickets to watch a virtual performance are also available.

Tickets can be purchased online at bit.ly/3dfbPOv.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.