The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department's first full stage production in more than a year will be getting a fitting audience. With live audiences still unsafe during the pandemic, the children's play "Miss Nelson is Missing!" was recorded and
The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department’s first full stage production in more than a year will be getting a fitting audience. With live audiences still unsafe during the pandemic, the children’s play “Miss Nelson is Missing!” was recorded and will be streamed to hundreds of elementary and junior high school classrooms around the state.
A total of 470 teachers have signed up to show the play in their classrooms, receiving free access to the play between April 26 and April 30 through the theater website Broadway on Demand. The play is also available to the public for a $5 streaming charge between April 25 and 30 by signing up for a free account at Broadway on Demand.
“The response has been absolutely amazing,” said Paula McGlasson, theater professor and production manager for the play. “We thought maybe a hundred teachers would reply. When we shut down registration, we had 470 teachers who wanted to view the play in their classes. I think most of these classrooms have about 20 students. That’s an amazing audience that we're going to reach with this production.”
“For years, we’ve had a robust student matinee program. So, the idea of theater offerings for the school community is always part of our season planning. This year is just a little different,” said David Howard, chair of the Theatre Department. “We see that theater tradition to be an important aspect for young people. They are our future students and patrons.”
The play’s director, Rachel Walshe, an assistant professor of acting and directing, came up with the idea of recording a full-length play to stream to a young audience, especially at a time when they’re lacking such opportunities. She chose “Miss Nelson is Missing!” as a perfect vehicle.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the popular children’s book by Harry Allard Jr., the play is about a rambunctious class that terrorizes its very sweet teacher, Miss Nelson. When Miss Nelson suddenly goes missing, she is replaced by the uber-strict Viola Swamp. Now terrorized themselves, the students unite in a zany hunt to find and bring Miss Nelson back. Because of the pandemic, the actors wear masks and physically distance from each other on stage, mirroring the experience children are seeing in their own classrooms.
“I’m a mother of three kids who are all distance learning and I know there’s a real deficit in the arts experiences because they can’t take any field trips,” said Walshe. “I thought if we offered a show for young audiences that animated their classroom experiences with kids in masks and socially distanced that would resonate with them.”
Because performing the play in front of a live audience wasn’t possible, Walshe suggested doing a cinematic capture of the play. Videographer Jesse Dufault filmed the play with his brother and fellow URI alumnus Jamie Dufault, and edited and prepared the play for streaming.
“We knew we were going to have to get creative with what kind of production we did this semester,” Walshe said. “One of the genres that is pretty popular is the idea of a live capture. It’s something that I wanted our students to have exposure to. We can’t have a live audience, but we still can put on a play and give our students the experience of producing a live play together.”
Like theaters around the country, the Theatre Department was forced to cancel its regular mainstage productions since last spring. Students have instead taken part in smaller productions – such as audio and Zoom plays – that allowed for little physical interaction.
So, the students were excited to get a chance to participate in a full production, one that allowed them to act on stage together, with costumes, a full set, music and lighting.
Liam Roberts, a first-year student from Warwick, plays Detective McSmogg, who the students enlist to find Miss Nelson. Roberts has done most of his acting solely with his voice this year, including performing in two “radio plays.”
“The audio-only format was super interesting to play with, but at the end of the day I think theater is best when one sees the action in front of them,” he said. “That is what ‘Miss Nelson is Missing!’ delivers to an audience that has been missing that for some time.”
Senior Mary Mullane, who plays Phoebe, one of Miss Nelson’s students, is excited for the students and teachers to see the play. “This pandemic has been hard on everyone,” said the Warwick resident, “but I cannot imagine how children must be feeling. I work as a nanny back home when I’m not in school. Throughout this process, I have kept thinking about how the little boy I nanny would be absolutely thrilled if he could see something like this.”
Warwick elementary schools registered to air the play are: Cedar Hill, E.T. Wyman, Greenwood, Holliman, Hoxsie, Lippitt, Norwood, Oakland Beach, Park, Scott and Warwick Neck.