Even in times when staying apart is crucial to saving lives and normal life is anything but, the show must go on.
And for two teenage Mt. Laurel actors, that means nightly rehearsals, running lines and remembering lyrics for a musical theater experience befitting the age of self-isolation and social distancing.
Lily Sims, 13, and Erika Kessler, 15, were invited to participate in iTheatrics’ “Zoomsicals,” adaptations of musicals presented live entirely through the virtual meeting app Zoom, after their previous years of experience with the New York City-based theater company. iTheatrics offers modified “junior” versions of popular musicals for school-age performers; the Zoomsicals are an extension of that theme, with performances limited to just 20 minutes.
“They do so much in that amount of time,” Kessler said. “It’s super fun and there’s no time when I’m bored.”
As iTheatrics attracts talent from across the country, it’s unusual to have two performers from the same South Jersey town involved in the same project.
“It’s crazy,” Sims said. “There are so many kids throughout the country and they chose two people from the same town.”
But both Sims and Kessler are simply happy to have a creative outlet when so many hobbies and interests are limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Sims is a student at Harrington Middle School and doesn’t have school plays, Kessler was part of Lenape High School’s spring musical, “The Wedding Singer,” which only ran for its first weekend before its second weekend of performances was first postponed and then canceled.
Kessler said that iTheatrics fills that void “a little bit,” but is a unique experience all its own, and Sims explained that being involved with a theater company has always been a great way for her to perform even without school plays. They both appreciate the chance to keep doing what they love while overcoming new hurdles.
“Since people are in different states and different houses, it kind of gives us more of a challenge and I like that,” Sims explained. “Sometimes we have delays when we’re singing together and it’s kind of all over the place, but that makes it a lot more fun.”
“It’s a great learning experience to get to know technology even more,” Kessler added. “It’s good to know new ways to use technology, especially with other theater companies doing online musicals. It’s important to know how to learn music and choreography effectively this way.”
And in a time when isolation can be an emotionally difficult experience, iTheatrics offers the opportunity for a dedicated cast to achieve a common goal.
“I like how everybody is always included,” said Sims. “Even if you’re in the ensemble, you’re still a huge part because the ensemble has so many key parts in the show.”
In addition to exploring their craft in a novel way, Sims and Kessler have found ways to personalize their online theater experience, as iTheatrics offers an array of opportunities for actors to hone all kinds of skills. Kessler said that she’s currently participating in the Zoomsicals, but she will also participate in the dance-intensive workshops.
“I love doing musical theater in general and I love dancing,” she noted. “Anything that has to do with musical theater, I’m all about it. I love all of it!”
The acting bug runs in both Kessler’s and Sims’ families: Sims’ father still performs — father and daughter have actually been in the same production together — and Kessler’s mother grew up doing theater, inspiring both Kessler and her older brother to pursue it.
Both of their mothers have watched their daughters chase something they feel passionate about.
“It’s fantastic watching Lily do what she loves,” Karen Sims said. “She can’t see her friends and the productions she was going to be in were postponed or canceled. This was a great opportunity for her to get re-engaged with theater and have the opportunity to work with some of the staff she met through the summer programs in previous years, and meet some talented kids she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to work with.”
“I feel that it’s important for the creativity to continue to flow, and it was exciting to see Erika take on a new outlet for her creative energy,” agreed Anne Kessler. “Not only is this a great gift for the performers, but also for those who view the performance. Bringing joy to others by being part of something bigger than just oneself is so necessary — especially during this time.”
Reaching a far-flung audience is part of the appeal of performing in online musicals, according to the teenage Kessler.
“It’s just a great way to have some fun when you’re stuck at home,” she said. “You can get up and have a dance party with us. I think it’s a great way to be entertained.”