Two years ago, COVID-19 completely changed the landscape of the theater industry and people like Amina Robinson, assistant professor and director of Temple’s “Once on This Island,” thought the drastic changes were nerve wracking.
“You know, it’s so interesting because COVID completely came through and shut down our theatrical industry for a while,” Robinson said. “It was kind of scary.”
Temple Theaters made their return to the stage for in-person shows last October. The production was highly restrictive, with masked performers, 25 percent capacity and a wary cast and crew. Today, Temple Theaters is back in full swing with in-person shows, full capacity theaters and no mask requirements.
From Oct. 13 to Oct. 22, Temple Theaters ran “Once on This Island” in the Randall Theater, located within Annenberg Hall. The production sought to uplift the audience and foster a sense of community for the third show of the season.
The cast and crew wanted something that felt celebratory and hopeful and ultimately chose “Once on This Island,” Robinson said.
A retelling of “The Little Mermaid” and set in the Caribbean Islands during the aftermath of a storm, “Once on This Island” tells the story of a community coming together during a crisis to overcome social and racial boundaries.
“It truly is such a community show,” said sophomore musical theater major Jasmine Villaroel. “Like you know we started as a community after this devastation of a storm, and we tell the story to uplift ourselves and remind us of, you know, we’re resilient and we’re much stronger than the natural disasters that unfortunately are very common in the Caribbean Islands.”
Unlike most of Temple Theaters’ major productions, which are hosted in the larger Tomlinson Theater, Randall Theater allowed for seating to be arranged on all sides of the stage as a way of connecting the audience directly to the story.
“I wanted the audience to feel very much so a part of our community that we were building, so I wanted actors just all around them,” Robinson said.
Actors weaving in and out of the crowd just inches away from the audience would be unfathomable a year ago, but now, Temple Theaters is better equipped to manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The production was able to avoid any potential delays from COVID-19 or other illnesses by having an onstage cast and a standby cast.
The presence of a standby cast helped Villaroel, who played Ti Moune in the onstage cast, because she was able to rely on the standby cast after catching COVID-19 in the early stages of rehearsals.
“Thankfully my standby, Alexis Goode, was fantastic and got all of the notes that I needed and everything and made sure I was caught up as soon as I got back,” Villaroel said.
This support among the cast and crew amplified the message of community onstage. One display of unity onstage, in which the entire cast gathered in a circle, was inspired by the cast’s ritual of sharing reminders of why they act and why they want to share the story.
It was added to the show because the actors got so used to this ritual at the end of their rehearsals, Villaroel said.
All members of the “Once on This Island” cast were people of color, strengthening the sense of community among the cast.
Having an all people of color cast also instills a sense of trust because there’s a sense of kinship the cast has from sharing similar experiences, said sophomore musical theater major Jamie Powell, who played Agwe in the standby cast of “Once on This Island.”
“I feel like it gives you a greater sense of the work and, you know, what you want to take from your personal life into the work,” Powell said.
Students like Villaroel hope that Temple continues to allow for there to be spaces for students of color who are creators and actors in shows that aren’t necessarily “Black” shows, Villaroel said.