Live Audiences Return to GDS Theater for Fall Show Marie Antoinette

The audience gathers in the Black Box before a performance of Marie Antoinette. Photo by Anna Shesol.

After 22 months since the Black Box’s lights last opened on a live production, GDS theater returned for in-person audiences with its four performances of the fall play, Marie Antoinette. After a school year of shows presented virtually, the performances were met with renewed enthusiasm from attendees and those who contributed to the production.

Director Laura Rosberg estimated that over 90 students’ work allowed the play’s two-weekend run to come to life. Audience members—including families who have not otherwise entered the building during the pandemic—were required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door. Tickets for three of the four shows sold out.

“It’s thrilling,” Rosberg said of the return to in-person GDS theater. “So much of what theater is about is action and reaction. You get feedback from the audience—even if they’re just restless; it can be negative as well as positive. That’s what theater is about.”

Senior Leila Jackson, who played a friend of the show’s eponymous queen and participated in two of last year’s virtual productions, agreed that it is crucially helpful as an actor to be able to gauge the audience’s energy and adapt accordingly. 

“When you’re on stage, it gives you the sense of ‘I’m really performing,’ rather than ‘I’m just kind of standing here, saying the lines,’” she said. “It helps get you in character. It helps get you in the space you need to be.”

Due to the difficulties that the school’s COVID restrictions presented for the theater program, all three of GDS’ annual shows were presented to audiences on Zoom last school year. The fall play, Hamlet, and the Winter One Acts were both performed live over Zoom. The spring musical, Spring Awakening, was filmed in person, edited and played for a virtual audience.

The previous spring musical, Matilda, was interrupted by the pandemic lockdown in March 2020 and was never fully performed. The cast produced videos of certain songs that were published online.

Marie Antoinette follows the partially fictionalized life of the eighteenth-century French queen Marie Antoinette, beginning during her reign in 1776 and ending with her infamous death on the guillotine almost 30 years later. Rosberg split the role of Marie into younger and older versions, played by juniors Ava Blum and Jacqueline Metzger, respectively. Her husband, King Louis XVI, was similarly shared by freshman Henry Cohen and junior Wesley Brubaker.

Rehearsals for Marie Antoinette began in September. At the beginning of each week, Rosberg sent a schedule to the cast outlining which actors needed to stay after school to rehearse each day. As the process progressed, more and more actors were called in for each session. Technical rehearsals, involving lighting and sound cues, began a week before the show’s premiere.

Elizabeth Yates, a parent of a crew member, sophomore Avery Ludlow, had not attended a GDS production of any format before Marie Antoinette. Yates said she decided to purchase tickets largely because the performance was in person.

In addition to the acting benefits, both Jackson and sophomore Rachel Schneider, who played another of Marie’s friends, found that the play’s cast had an easier time bonding with each other than in the virtual productions last school year.

“All the traditions and stuff leading up to the big shows, and especially opening night, and even during dress rehearsals and tech rehearsals, are a lot more exciting,” Schneider said, adding that she has enjoyed spending time with castmates in and out of rehearsals.

Rosberg also said that returning to live performances allowed for greater opportunities for technical design than with virtual productions, in which technical options were minimal due to limited visibility of visual effects online.

“Compared to last year, we were able to get much more serious about costumes, about sets, and lights and so on,” Rosberg said. She commended the technical teams for their vital contributions, with student-designed lighting cues, sound effects, sets, makeup and costumes.

Sophomore Joshua Reynolds said that he and his fellow cast members have received much praise in passing from classmates and staff members alike. 

“It’s so much better,” Schneider concluded, referring to performing for an audience in person. “It’s like the feeling of theater is back.”

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