Maui Arts & Entertainment

When All the World is Not a Stage: Pandemic Impacts on Maui Theater Program

By Andy Gross
October 19, 2021, 7:41 AM HST
* Updated October 19, 2:54 PM
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King Kekaulike High School – Drama. PC: courtesy pre-COVID photo.

When all the world is not a stage… The show must go on, but in many ways it will never be quite the same.

Life during COVID-19 has had a profound effect on long time King Kekaulike High School (KKHS) drama director and educator Chris Kepler. Widely respected in the community for his passion, dedication, stewardship and creativity, Kepler and his students have faced daunting life challenges.

“In the Spring of the 2019-2020 school year, KKHS Drama had been rehearsing for their musical Footloose for seven  weeks.  We went into Spring Break looking forward to two 8-hour Tuesday and Wednesday rehearsals in which we could finally run the entire show–music, acting, choreography that we had spent so much time learning.  Then, the world, and our show, fell into a heap,” Kepler recalled.

In addition to prepping for memorable musicals in their state-of-the art performing arts center and before that, the school cafeteria, Kepler’s drama classes and the drama club were also a safe haven for students to express themselves and explore their identities. The toll has been enormous.

“The pandemic obviously affected people in ways much more dire than cancelling a school show.  But, for many of our drama kids, the stage is their life. It’s their line of support, love, togetherness, success, and pride.  COVID-19 not only took ‘Footloose,’ but an entire year and a half of multiple drama club potluck dinner/dance socials, the Performing Arts Development Sleepover, two intermediate and advanced acting class plays, the beginning acting and creative dance showcases, attending community theatre shows as a group, losing two spring musicals, and the sheer joy of performing for an audience.  The drama and dance  programs screeched to a halt,” said Kepler.

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What has it been like for Kepler as an educator observing his students learning online and not being able to fully interact socially?

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“It has been a major drain,” he said.  “When you take a passion for a discipline, and the discipline itself inherently changes, the passion dissipates. For most educators, last year was very difficult.  We had to adapt not only to an entirely new modality of teaching, but there was no consistency of paradigm.  First no students were present, then only “vulnerable” students, which wasn’t entirely defined, then small groups, then larger groups.  But never the entire student body.”

Beyond the educational challeneges, Kepler saw an even greater adverse situation.

“To me, students’ lack of social engagement was the biggest negative student-related effect of COVID-19.  Lacking academics can be made up, but social interaction and the educational rights of passage that go with it (proms, plays, sports, concerts) cannot be replaced or made up,” said Kepler.  

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He said high school is such an important time to develop social and interpersonal skills. “Students were cooped somewhere, usually a bedroom, on their laptop for 6-8 hours a day.  Most teachers did not require “cameras on” in the Zoom classrooms, so students did not even have a visual connection to classmates.  No extracurricular clubs or athletics.  No recess. No verbal banter, teasing, flirting, laughter, hurt, disappointment, triumph or pride.  No sense of developing a tribe or even one single important daily relationship,” he said.

For Kepler, the past 18 months have been a bit of a reckoning and a period of self-reflection; teacher heal and teach thyself.

“Not to be pessimistic, but I’ve stepped back more through Covid and realized how hard I’ve worked for the past 25 years as a drama teacher, and, really, feel like I need to find ways to help my own mental health.  Call it a Simone Biles syndrome.  As up and happy and encouraging and positively influential as I’ve been able to be for and with hundreds and hundreds of students, I realize that I have not been fair to myself or family.  I spend too much time working. I’ve also learned, or maybe unfortunately been conditioned, not to plan ahead too much.  So much has changed.  Planning and putting massive amounts of work for something that may not happen is entirely discouraging,” he said. 

And so the big question: Will there be live performances at KKHS including the traditional big spring musical?

“We are trying to forge ahead despite severe limitations. One of the two Intermediate and advanced acting classes is currently in production for a romantic comedy titled ‘Maybe Baby, It’s You,’ by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson,” said Kepler.

Kepler said students will perform in see-through masks. Rather than a play per se, it will be collection of scenes. 

“I chose this type of show anticipating COVID-19 hiccups and speed bumps. If we must, it will be a lot easier to cancel one or two scenes rather than an entire show,” he said.

It is likely there will be no live audience or extremely limited, depending on what seems like continually-changing COVID-19 protocols, according to Kepler.

“And of course, with no audience, so much of the magic of theatre is simply lost. We will live stream the show, but have not figured out exactly how yet,“ he said.

According to Kepler the other intermediate and advanced acting classes will be performing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in January 2022.

“Our Spring musical, in our tradition of doing it every fourth year, will be ‘The Lady Pirates of Captain Bree,’ by Martin Follose,” he said.

“Some may say, we over do it, but for me, teaching is about reaching the students.  The show has many supporting characters as well as a huge ensemble and I know it will be an incredible memory for students.  I couldn’t let this year’s seniors (whose last opportunity at a musical was ‘Annie’ their freshman year) miss out on a chance to be part of the Breesome! That’s If we can or are allowed to pull it off,” he said.

As for audiences for the January play and spring musical?  Kepler said, “that has yet to be determined.” 

When asked if the pandemic and attendant deprivation changed his views of what community theater can still be in terms of uniting and entertaining people Kepler responded in essence, the show, however it evolves, will forever go on.

“No, it has not.  Community theatre has had to take an obvious step back, like the rest of the performing arts,” he said.  “But it will rebound.  The arts are elastic. They will develop and mold.  People have an inherent need to be entertained, and some of us the need to entertain. The pandemic cannot change that.“

Andy Gross
Andy Gross is an experienced journalist who has worked many places both abroad and in Hawaiʻi. He says he has never lost his curiosity, compassion or empathy for the people, the world and the conditions that surround him.
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