Play a Part brings theater back to Ridgefield schools

RIDGEFIELD — For many elementary school students in town, the fifth-grade musical is a rite of passage — the last hoorah before moving up to middle school. But in a time when live theater is off limits, continuing that beloved tradition has become a question that Missy Hanlon seeks to answer.

Hanlon is the director of Play a Part LLC, which she founded last fall in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its mission is to reconfigure live theatrical performances in a safe and socially-distant manner using Zoom, green screens and streaming technology. Most rehearsals are held virtually and each actor’s part is recorded separately to be edited into a final product.

This spring, Hanlon is partnering with the PTAs at Branchville and Veteran's Park Elementary Schools in Ridgefield to produce COVID-friendly musicals for the fifth-grade classes.

“I asked myself, ‘what can I do for these kids?’” she said. “For them to miss [the musical] would’ve been sad, and I’m so thrilled that I can do it.”

In February, Play a Part’s first production, “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom,” screened at The Prospector Theater while viewers tuned in from home. The event raised more than $700 to benefit the nonprofit and put the business on the community’s radar.

Recently, Tharini Pande, the fifth-grade chair of Branchville’s PTA, reached out to Hanlon to get a tour of Play a Part’s studio while considering possible options for the musical. Each room in Hanlon’s studio is outfitted with HEPA filters and UV light air purifiers, and hand sanitizers are located at the egress. While rehearsing in person, actors wear masks and social distance.

This June, Branchville’s fifth-graders will perform “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” which audiences will stream via ShowTix4U, Hanlon said. Now in its second week of rehearsals, the show saw more than 75 percent of Branchville’s fifth-grade class during auditions, Pande said.

“The kids are absolutely thrilled since they assumed we were not having it, and [those] who had not participated in years past are participating now,” Pande said, noting that the advent of Zoom has quelled some students’ stage fright. “The parents are grateful that we can bring a little bit of excitement into the fifth grade so not everything is lost with the current circumstances.”

Auditions for Veteran Park’s iteration of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” start this week, PTA co-president Denise Schimenti said. Since her daughter participated in Play a Part’s after-school program in the fall, she was able to see its innovation firsthand.

“Missy’s team has created this cool, special alternative to traditional live theater,” Schimenti said. “I was overwhelmed by the final product. The level of detail [they use when] editing it all together, you would never know that the kids weren’t in the same room.”

Hanlon is holding Zoom and in-person rehearsals with Branchville’s students and plans to rehearse “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in small, in-person groups. The process, she said, has been “pure joy.”

“My cheeks hurt at the end of the Zoom rehearsal because we’re having so much fun,” she added. “We can be expressive, creative, make bold choices and support each other.”

Having an outlet for the performing arts more than a year into the pandemic has been a gratifying experience, Schimenti said. “We’re excited at Veteran’s Park that we can be one of the schools that’s leveraging this great opportunity in town,” she added. “It’s something to normalize their year, which has been very abnormal.”

The curtains on “Alice in Wonderland” will also go up in June, with a potential screening from The Prospector Theater.