The show must go on: Wilton Children's Theater performs, perseveres during pandemic

WILTON — “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.”

The song lyric from “When I Grow Up” from the musical “Matilda” was learned the hard way by the Wilton Children’s Theater. The cast and crew of “Matilda” were set to hit the stage two days after schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The show was postponed indefinitely, which devastated all, according to board President Jen Kepner and Vice President Sarah Beach.

But grin and bear it, they did not. The cast performed the song virtually in late March on the WCT Facebook page. And that was only the beginning of how the group would adapt.

Beach and Kepner said the cancellation of Matilda was “very upsetting.”

“The show was canceled two days before the curtain went up. At the time, none of us knew what the future would hold. The kids got all the way to tech week,” Kepner said.

At that point, the usual Wilton Children Theater programming “went out the window.”

“We had to be flexible and pivot,” Beach said. WCT did two virtual summer programs and just put on another virtual performance of “Little Women,” with two different, small casts of seventh and eighth graders. The production was broadcast live from Trackside, Wilton’s teen center.

Upcoming in the spring is a similarly styled performance of the WCT’s younger students. “Red and the Wolf,” a new interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, will debut in February.

Much like many other transitional experiences for 2020-21 students, the WCT family had to approach that special year differently.

Silver linings

Despite so much loss, there were silver linings: Two former Wilton High theater alumni joined forces with WCT to help.

Rebecca Nisco, who is studying at the Royal College of Music in London, created and directed “When the Lights Go Out on Broadway” over the summer. The event was a virtual theater experience including some of Broadway’s “most beloved songs.”

Nisco said she felt a sense of gratitude when Beach asked her to do the project.

“WCT was so proactive in making sure that these kids had a summer theater experience and that enthusiasm and dedication really inspired me in helping to create this show,” she said. “ ... I was passionate about writing a timely story that reflected the times we were in but also creating a story that felt like an escape from anything COVID- related. Creating this story was challenging but also incredibly rewarding.”

Nisco was joined by fellow Wilton alumni Caitlin Witty, who helped edit the clips and audio bits together.

“We all had the rewarding challenge to make this not only possible (music over Zoom is especially challenging), but fun and give that sense of community that creating theater promises,” she said.

Nisco said building a sense of community is at the very heart of theater. One of the greatest aspects of directing this show was seeing first-hand the resiliency, passion, and hard-working nature of the young students, she said.

“Now more than ever, we are learning how to redefine ourselves , and what WCT has done in the face of this pandemic is nothing short of that. WCT has faced these challenges head on and created theatrical opportunities for these kids, all while continuing to strengthen and broaden their community,” Nisco said.

Parent Lisa Gibboney said the whole process was done “smartly and safely” and she felt comfortable sending her daughter Sofie, a seventh-grader, to the rehearsals.

“It was comforting to send my child to a semi-normal activity (and I call it that because of the social distancing and masks) and have her come home happy and tired,” she said.

What Gibboney loved most, she said, was “the pure joy I felt for my child as I saw her onstage being able to do something she loves.”

Gibboney said that throughout the last year, parents are seeing part of their children’s personalities get lost or forgotten due to the stress and anxiety of COVID-19.

“But while she was on that stage, I felt that was all gone and she had this moment of being back to who she was really is,” Gibboney said.

Student Clara Lilly said it was “Great to be a part of working together towards a goal. I also love being a part of something bigger than myself.”

Student Isabella Kaoud, a seventh-grader, agreed.

“During this time it was an awesome opportunity for us to work as a cast and put on a show, and being safe while doing it. I had a great time, and I know my cast mates did as well,” she said.

Another WCT participant, Liam McNamara, an eighth-grader, said he was looking for a way to counter the boredom brought on by the pandemic.

“When WCT announced they were doing the show, I was excited. When it was over, I have to say it exceeded my hopes for how much fun it would be,” he said.

McNamara said he hopes WCT continues with its virtual and pandemic-safe programming.

Caitlin Witty said her involvement with WCT began when Beach asked her if she could help transition their production of “Matilda” to a virtual production in March.

“She had a chance to share her love of the theater, with it being a creative outlet for herself, while serving the kids,” Beach said.

“I have gained skills I never could have expected, and am grateful to the pandemic for providing me these opportunities to, most importantly, gain new relationships with young individuals,” Witty said.

Witty also said she felt it was unfair that students were able to play sports over the summer but couldn’t participate in in-person theater.

“The arts often get pushed aside when it comes to mainstream education. I cannot express how deeply important an experience in the theater is for a child. My hope is for every child to feel seen and heard at children’s theater ... to learn that they are worthy of the space they inhabit,” she said.

Kepner is describing the last year of activity for WCT as having silver linings — these included working with Nisco and Witty, as well as Trackside and the Wilton Playshop.

One of challenges for WCT is that it doesn’t have a designated space, which in this case ended up being a “blessing and a curse” Kepner said, offering them flexibility with rehearsal and performance space.

Kepner and Beach said they have learned that WCT is “quite good at making things happen.”

Upcoming programs at the WCT include an in-person scene study workshop with Witty, and a performance in early February of “Red vs. the Wolf,” a new interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood for fifth- and sixth-graders. The program is now full but participants can join the waiting list.

Kepner and Beach said there’s no way to tell what the future holds for WCT, but with the beginning distribution of the vaccine, they are hopeful better days ahead.

Until then, WCT seems to have embraced the words of one of its “Little Women” characters, Amy — “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

sshultz@darientimes.com