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Commentary: Honoring resilience through theater

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Commentator Scott Rasso.

Directing a high school musical during a pandemic comes with unique challenges and rewards.

In addition to learning loss due to the COVID school closures, pandemic shutdowns also ravaged many extra-curricular activities, like theatre. This is not unique to us, as it has also happened to schools around the world. What did happen, and is still currently happening to us, however, is that our district is approaching the next step of a long-range plan to redesign our schools into grade-cluster attendance centers.

This plan has us closing and repurposing some older buildings as well as renovating existing facilities to accommodate our changing student populations, increasing equity inside and outside of the curriculum, and realigning everything we do to meet the needs of our diverse learners from all populations. The coming steps in the renovation and restructuring project will include the closing of Churchill Junior High School this summer. Students at those grades will be moved and housed in a remodeled Galesburg High School so that the facility will hold all district students in grades 7 through 12 beginning this fall.

When the pandemic shutdowns began, time stopped. We all thought that it would just be two weeks and then we'd be right back in school. Two weeks turned into a month, and then we were remote learning for the rest of the school year. In the fall of 2020, we struggled to get kids back into classrooms. When we did in February 2021, the renovation projects at GHS had already begun, forcing the students to be spread out across four multi-classroom pods in the GHS parking lot, Wicall gym, the Fieldhouse, and two decommissioned school buildings adjacent to the high school grounds. We looked like a muddy community college, but we were held together by the resolve of dedicated educators and students aching to return to normalcy. GHS reopened somewhat in mid-September 2021 but, to this day, some parts of the facility are still active construction sites, including new spaces for band and choir, a wing of classrooms, and our performing arts center.

For our coming spring production of Working: The Musical we are doing something very special to honor the resilience of our community, the pride of the past, and the promise of the future, with a localized version of the show. Our cast and crew is made up of students from grades 7 through 12, all of whom have been displaced at some point over the last few years, whether it was due to construction, COVID, redrawn school boundaries, or all of the above. We have no space at the high school to perform our musical. Next year, Churchill Junior High will be no more. So why not perform one last production at Churchill in order to pay tribute to one building that's meant a great deal to our community? At the same time, we can share the anticipation that we all have for the new facility that we will call home in the future.

As an educator who has taught at both schools, I have many different feelings about all of this. But the time, effort, and energy that I'm putting into directing it are really helping me to process those complex emotions. The students are catching on that this is a bigger deal than just a typical spring musical. This production is a learning experience that extends far beyond the walls of the classroom. We are performing with a purpose. It's a chance for us to heal, to grow, and to see the bigger picture of what really matters to us – our community.

With this production of Working: The Musical, I not only have a show that speaks and sings to the heart of the working class, but the license for the localized version allows me liberties with the script that most copyrighted works do not. With that, I can include video footage and images of interviews that I have conducted with local workers who talk about themselves, their jobs, and their place in the community. I can adapt the libretto to effectively set our show in Galesburg. It has become a way to honor a facility that is reaching its sunset while also pointing to our future home just becoming visible near the horizon. But it’s also a tribute to the essential workers who keep us moving forward every day.

We need some positives, some collaborative victories, things to smile about, and perhaps cry happy tears over to remind us of the good that still surrounds us. If you would like to help us get the word out, please share our story and, of course, come see our production. We run Friday April 8th, Saturday April 9th, and Sunday April 10th at Churchill Junior High School in Galesburg. Follow “GHS Theatre” on Facebook and Instagram or check our district website for more information.

 Scott Rasso is Coordinator of Multilingual Services for Galesburg District 205 and the director of the spring musical at Galesburg High School.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.