Facing COVID-19 cancellations, student productions rush to a final bow

As USC cancelled planned events due to the pandemic, casts and crews scrambled to wrap up productions.

It was already going to be an uneasy rehearsal for “The Secret Garden." At 4 p.m. on Thursday, the cast of students arrived to the Bing Theater, worried that they were rehearsing for a show that wouldn’t ever be performed.

By 6 p.m., their fears were confirmed. An email from David Bridel, Dean for USC’s School of Dramatic Arts, affirmed that all student productions for the spring semester were to be cancelled, including “Secret Garden.”

“It was pretty heartbreaking,” said Tim Frangos, a junior double-majoring in theater and law, history and culture. “Our cast was worried about cancellations.”

Facing the growing COVID-19 pandemic, USC and other universities have been forced to cancel events planned for the spring. This includes performances, ceremonies and projects that students have been toiling on since early in the semester.

Frangos was set to play Archibald Craven, a central character in the mainstage musical which he has been rehearsing for since January, often for 30 hours a week.

The cast had to act on their feet. By 6 p.m., their director, Kelly Ward - a broadway and USC alumnus - gave them an ultimatum: either go home, or put the show up for one last rehearsal.

Lizzie Scholz - a senior, and the show’s lead - spoke up. Her grandmother was visiting Los Angeles to see Lizzie rehearse for what would be her last show at USC. What were the chances, she asked through tears, that they could do one final run-through?

The cast rallied behind her. By 6:30 p.m., they started sending out calls and posting on social media for people to come see the show. Curtain was at 7 p.m.

“In thirty minutes, we filled up the Bing theater,” Frangos said.

“We got a pretty decent amount of people,” added Mikaela Barocio - the musical’s assistant director and a junior majoring in theater. “It was actually a larger number than one of our opening nights last year.”

The final run-through was put on in front of a nearly-packed house - albeit a bit awkward with some actors in leather jackets and Doc Martens instead of the appropriate 19th century attire.

“It definitely wasn’t perfect.” Barocio said, acknowledging that “final product or not, that is kind of how it is - we hustled together.”

Nonetheless, the show was completed in front of an audience of friends, family and professors clumped together in the Bing theater for what may be the last time this season.

“It just shows how powerful art is, and how unstoppable artists are,“ Barocio said.

Other productions faced a longer gap between their air date and a notice of cancellation. At Trojan Vision - USC’s student-run television station run by the School of Cinematic Arts - what was meant to be a routine Friday turned into a series of finales facing a 24-hour turnaround.

“It was kind of a bummer because we had no more show, but [there was] a lot of anxiety to go off on a good note,” said Pat Duffy, a junior screenwriting major.

Duffy is the Executive Producer for The Breakdown, a news-parody show that runs weekly on the station, but now will be ending it’s season after just three episodes.

As part of its finale, the cast put together an episode parodying local news which, of course, covered the pandemic extensively.

“It’s been a sad week for many other reasons other than the show,” said Julianne Fox, a cinema major who works as the Breakdown’s showrunner. “Using it to cope, using it as an outlet to do one final thing before I shut myself in my house for a month.”

For seniors, it is a particularly poignant ending - given the years spent working on shows, rising up the rank of the student-led crews only to have your final victory lap cut short.

Lauren Merola, a senior who is the executive producer for The Watercooler - a ESPN-esque sports talk show - noted the melancholia.

“I started The Watercooler when I was a sophomore and I’ve always dreamed about being a senior and getting that send off,” she said “To be able to see that happen for other seniors and not be able to experience it yourself is kind of heartbreaking.”

While the rest of the university continues on with the uncertainty of what the future will look like - a memo released on Friday noted that future changes to the remaining spring schedule are to be anticipated - these finales signal a definite end to what many students expected to be an integral part of their semester.

As the cast of “The Secret Garden” took their final bow on Thursday night at the Bing theater, the feeling was an odd swirl of emotion - pride for what they had created, with a wistfulness for what could have been.

“I was disappointed in not being able to advance the work,” said Barocio. “I think even now it’s hard to process."