KINGSTON, R.I. – April 14, 2021 – The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department’s first full stage production in more than a year will be getting a fitting audience. With live audiences still unsafe during the pandemic, the children’s play “Miss Nelson is Missing!” was recorded and will be streamed to hundreds of elementary and junior high school classrooms around the state.
A total of 470 teachers have signed up to show the play in their classrooms, receiving free access to the play between April 26 and April 30 through the theater website Broadway on Demand. The play is also available to the public for a $5 streaming charge between April 25 and 30 by signing up for a free account at Broadway on Demand.
“The response has been absolutely amazing,” said Paula McGlasson, theater professor and production manager for the play. “We thought maybe a hundred teachers would reply. When we shut down registration, we had 470 teachers who wanted to view the play in their classes. I think most of these classrooms have about 20 students. That’s an amazing audience that we’re going to reach with this production.”
“For years, we’ve had a robust student matinee program. So, the idea of theater offerings for the school community is always part of our season planning. This year is just a little different,” said David Howard, chair of the Theatre Department. “We see that theater tradition to be an important aspect for young people. They are our future students and patrons.”
The play’s director, Rachel Walshe, an assistant professor of acting and directing, came up with the idea of recording a full-length play to stream to a young audience, especially at a time when they’re lacking such opportunities. She chose “Miss Nelson is Missing!” as a perfect vehicle.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the popular children’s book by Harry Allard Jr., the play is about a rambunctious class that terrorizes its very sweet teacher, Miss Nelson. When Miss Nelson suddenly goes missing, she is replaced by the uber-strict Viola Swamp. Now terrorized themselves, the students unite in a zany hunt to find and bring Miss Nelson back. Because of the pandemic, the actors wear masks and physically distance from each other on stage, mirroring the experience children are seeing in their own classrooms.
“I’m a mother of three kids who are all distance learning and I know there’s a real deficit in the arts experiences because they can’t take any field trips,” said Walshe. “I thought if we offered a show for young audiences that animated their classroom experiences with kids in masks and socially distanced that would resonate with them.”
Because performing the play in front of a live audience wasn’t possible, Walshe suggested doing a cinematic capture of the play. Videographer Jesse Dufault filmed the play with his brother and fellow URI alumnus Jamie Dufault, and edited and prepared the play for streaming.
“We knew we were going to have to get creative with what kind of production we did this semester,” Walshe said. “One of the genres that is pretty popular is the idea of a live capture. It’s something that I wanted our students to have exposure to. We can’t have a live audience, but we still can put on a play and give our students the experience of producing a live play together.”
Like theaters around the country, the Theatre Department was forced to cancel its regular mainstage productions since last spring. Students have instead taken part in smaller productions – such as audio and Zoom plays – that allowed for little physical interaction.
So, the students were excited to get a chance to participate in a full production, one that allowed them to act on stage together, with costumes, a full set, music and lighting.
Liam Roberts, a first-year student from Warwick, plays Detective McSmogg, who the students enlist to find Miss Nelson. Roberts has done most of his acting solely with his voice this year, including performing in two “radio plays.”
“The audio-only format was super interesting to play with, but at the end of the day I think theater is best when one sees the action in front of them,” he said. “That is what ‘Miss Nelson is Missing!’ delivers to an audience that has been missing that for some time.”
“When the department first announced that we were doing a play for the spring, I was so excited, never mind that this is a gem of a play,” added Alana Parrott, a junior from Webster, Massachusetts, who plays both Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp. “I am so grateful to be making art now when some theaters aren’t even open.”
Rehearsals and the play followed COVID-19 health guidelines. Besides masks and physical distancing, the students were tested for the virus weekly, filled out the University’s daily health self-assessment, and had their temperatures taken before rehearsals.
“During rehearsals, our COVID-19 compliance officer and I had to constantly monitor how close actors would get to each other,” said Allison Marchetti, of Cranston, a senior and production stage manager. “At the end of each rehearsal, my management team would wipe down all props and commonly touched surfaces. There was also just this sense of what if someone got exposed or caught the virus during the production, which was something I had to be prepared for if we needed an understudy or if members of our team would need to quarantine.”
All the precautions were worth it, though.
Senior Mary Mullane, who plays Phoebe, one of Miss Nelson’s students, is excited for the students and teachers to see the play. “This pandemic has been hard on everyone,” said the Warwick resident, “but I cannot imagine how children must be feeling. I work as a nanny back home when I’m not in school. Throughout this process, I have kept thinking about how the little boy I nanny would be absolutely thrilled if he could see something like this.”
Along with the team it’s taken to stage and record the play, it also has taken a team to reach out to schools around the state and deal with post-production duties.
McGlasson worked with assistant production manager Emma Becker, a senior from Tiverton, and administrative assistants Bonnie Bosworth and Sil DelSignore to contact every school in the state, emailing invitations to teachers, principals and other educators to sign up for the play.
Along with the free access to the play, teachers around the state are receiving web links to recorded post-show conversations among actors, Walshe, student assistant director Erin Haas, a senior from Providence, and musical director Maria Day Hyde. Also, teachers will receive a study guide put together by Sarah Taylor, a sophomore, who was a first-time dramaturg for the show.
“The study guide in total is 41 pages long. It includes information about the book, the authors, playwright, our director, and our production,” said the North Providence resident. “It also includes questions and activities to help the teachers create lessons based on the show and its contents. I made it as detailed as possible.”
McGlasson said the play has broken new ground for the Theatre Department in a lot of ways, and hopes what has been learned from the production will not be lost.
“I think there are opportunities here to reach audiences we normally wouldn’t reach in any other manner,” said McGlasson, former chair of the department. “Rachel and I are both hoping that in some fashion some components of this finds itself in our future seasons.”
Character, actor, hometown
Miss Nelson/Swamp: Alana Parrott, Webster, Massachusetts
Principal Humleker: Ryan Alexander, Portsmouth
Detective McSmogg: Liam Roberts, Warwick
Raymond: Owen Gilmartin, Wakefield
Phoebe: Mary Mullane, Warwick
Elvis: Matthew Oxley, Narragansett
George: Emma Freel, Barrington
Lavita: Edhaya T, North Andover, Massachusetts
Kimberly: Lauren Jannetti, Lincoln
Mouse: Omar Laguerre-Lewis, Litchfield Park, Arizona
Character, actor, hometown
Miss Nelson/Swamp: Erin McGowan, Narragansett
Principal Humleker: Jenna Wentworth, Tewksbury, Massachusetts
Detective McSmogg: Ben Pereira, Danbury, Connecticut
Raymond: David Weber, Sault Ste Marie, Michigan
Phoebe: Mackenzie Blake, Cranston
Elvis: Alexander Linn, Hanover, Massachusetts
George: Riley Nedder, Attleboro, Massachusetts
Lavita: Carleigh Boyle, Hillsdale, New Jersey
Kimberly: Darby Wilson, Newton, Massachusetts
Mouse: Zoe Pepin, Maynard, Massachusetts
Also heading up production: Costume design: senior Kate Dyson. Scenic design: Lecturer Max Ponticelli. Lighting and projection design: Assistant Professor James Horban. Sound design: guest artist Michael Hyde. Properties design: junior Melie Hayes.