Local Home School Theatre Triumphs Over COVID-19 Obstacles

While most theatrical organizations have been wallowing in the pit of COVID-19 for the past year, Encore! Home School Productions found a way to stage their first live, in-person musical in two years.

Caleb Steindel, Guest Contributer

A young girl decked out in the garb of Rafiki from “The Lion King” takes her place onstage beneath the darkness of the auditorium.

Her castmates, 30 young homeschooled actors, waited nervously in the wings of their church. The dulcet tones of the emcee echoed through the building to address the audience as they sat with bated breath. As the lights hit the stage, the audience erupted in applause for a musical production that defied all the odds and broke through the obstacles. After all, it was never supposed to be performed in the first place. 

While most theatrical organizations have been wallowing in the pit of COVID-19 for the past year, Encore! Home School Productions found a way to stage their first live, in-person musical in two years. Over the weekend of April 15-17, Encore staged four performances of Disney Goes To Broadway, an original cabaret show featuring songs and dances from various Disney Broadway musicals.

The original plan for 2021 was to stage the musical Cinderella, a full-length show, and perform it at a larger venue with many more people in the audience. Due to pandemic-related concerns, their original performance venue was shut down, meaning that the entire cast and crew expected the season to be swept away like chaff in the wind.

However, director Reji Woods still maintained a desire to give the kids a chance to perform.

“We’ve obviously had quite the year! COVID-19 has done quite the job on art communities around our nation,” said Woods. “There has been anger, pain, hurt, and disappointment, but through it all, I always believed that there would be a shining light on the other side of the tunnel. Disney Goes To Broadway is that bright light, and it is because of each of the student actors that the light shines so brilliantly. Each of these amazing young performers has put their hearts and souls into this production.”

With mask mandates and strict cleaning protocols in place, the cast and crew got to work. Woods and his team, including choreographer Dena McKell, assistant director Vicki Dincher, and producer Ann Snyder, quickly cast the cabaret’s various roles and relocated rehearsing and performance plans to Living Hope Church located in Middletown, Pennsylvania. 

The team had just four short weeks to prepare; roughly one-fourth the amount of time Encore! usually has to produce a show. Nevertheless, they rose to the occasion, performing four shows across three days and receiving standing ovations every single night. 

While the 2021 cabaret was a uniquely challenging experience, the Encore! team is no stranger to producing musicals. Encore! began in 2001 as the brainchild of Debra Bell, one of the nation’s leading homeschooling experts, out of a desire to provide a family for budding young actors. Since then, the group has staged over 20 productions and received dozens of Central Pennsylvania award nominations.

“We started out with a desire to give homeschoolers the same acting opportunities that they would receive at conventional schools,” said Bell, Encore’s founder and President. “Our all-volunteer group is able to provide dramatic opportunities to our students through corporate sponsorships, actor’s dues, ticket sales, program ads, well-wishes, and donations. We’ve participated in Hershey Theatre’s Apollo Awards since 2011, earning six honorable mentions, 22 nominations, and three wins.” 

Despite the shortened rehearsal process and miniature performance venue of the 2021 season, Bell said that she considered the 700+ tickets sold to be a success, and she was quick to credit the achievement to her cast and crew. 

“The kids earned this! They’ve all been so positive, hard-working, eager, patient, long-suffering, exemplary in every way, and all the adults they’ve worked with have commented on how easy they are to work with. The only way this great show could come together in such a short time is because of a very special group of kids. We just wanted to make it possible to have a live show that can be seen by all our supporters. It’s been a struggle – but our motivation from the beginning has been to try and give these kids a show of some kind.” 

Producer Ann Snyder, herself a homeschooling mother of four, expressed her gratitude and astonishment at what they were able to accomplish in such a short time.

“These kids truly amaze me. It was definitely a labor of love, especially in today’s climate, but worth every minute of my time and personal sacrifice. These kids were given roles, songs, and dances and told they had four weeks to put it all together. It blows my mind that they could learn so many different characters in such a short time.”

Among these characters that the cast portrayed were Disney legends such as Aladdin, Belle, and Elsa, as well as some lesser-known faces like Kala from Tarzan and Davey from Newsies. Songs were performed from nine shows, including The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Cinderella, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, and Aladdin. Each show was given a brief introduction to provide the audience with context for the history and plot. 

Elizabeth Younts, a homeschooling mother who volunteered with public relations for the show, added that the mindset and demeanor of the cast was a pleasant surprise.

“My heart is so full and overflowing for this community. Everyone is so precious and talented and joyful in the midst of a trial. To think this was put together in 4 weeks is astounding.”

Encore! Home School Productions has not been alone in being forced to make difficult decisions regarding live theatre. The COVID-19 pandemic forced most high schools to cancel their musical performances back in 2020, but with the virus still present in 2021, many high schools have continued to opt for live-streamed performances or cancel their shows altogether. High school seniors have been impacted in a unique way, as many were faced with the possibility of not getting the chance to perform again. Would the pandemic prevent them from having a senior show? Would they have a venue? Would their families be able to see them perform? 

It’s understandable, therefore, that Encore’s seniors were excited about this unconventional opportunity. 

“Live theatre is so rare these days,” said senior Allyson Hunsicker. “Just getting the chance to perform again is so cool. This is such a fun, high-energy show that is perfect for all ages and a great chance to see some of your favorite Disney songs brought to life.”

“We are having so much fun,” said Megan Kenney, another of Encore’s seniors. “Everyone in this show is so talented and so much fun to work with, and we’re all having a blast doing what we love onstage.”

Disney Goes To Broadway received largely positive reviews from audience members as well. Audience members from each performance were quick to laud the excellence of the production.

“The show was great!” said Harrisburg native Sandy Baum. “Filled with energy and talent. Great costuming too! I wanted to see it again.”

“These kids are amazing,” said Elizabethtown native Melody Miller. “It was so fun to laugh and sing along. I mean who can keep quiet during these songs? The atmosphere is just so infectious!”

As the lights came down on the final performance of Encore’s Disney Goes To Broadway, there was a palpable sense of euphoria rippling across the entire church. The audience rose in a sea of cheers to applaud the young performers while the kids waved through tears from the stage. 

“Disney has always held such a wonderful place in my heart, and I hope that Encore! Homeschool Productions will do the same,” said Woods. “I think everyone left this show tapping their feet and singing a tune with a huge smile on their face!” 

For more information on Encore! Home School Productions and their upcoming productions, visit their website

 

Article originally written April 2021.