What happens to a theater school in Oak Park when the pandemic shuts everything down? The show must go online, of course.
But in this case, The Show Must Go Online, is a musical by a collaboration including Dave Hudson of Forest Park who believes the production is the world’s first virtual children’s musical. Gigi Hudson, who has been married to Dave for 29 years, is the owner and runs The Actors Garden at 909 S. Lombard Ave. in The Oak Park Arts District. Dave provides technical and music support. Needing material for their virtual Summer Camp was the impetus behind creating The Show Must Go On.
During a 10-week spring session at The Actors Garden, the showcase weekend had arrived. On Friday, March 13, and Saturday, March 14, shows were performed at the theater studio space the Hudson’s have had for five years with seating capacity for 30; Gigi has run The Actors Garden for 11 years. When Sunday, March 15, 2020, arrived, everything changed because of COVID-19.
“We had this beautiful Alice in Wonderland set all built, ready to go for our shows on Sunday,” Gigi said. “These kids worked incredibly hard to get their show up and we never saw it come to fruition.”
Once the Hudsons realized the seriousness of the pandemic, Gigi said, they felt everyone in Oak Park, or even the country would be left without any opportunity to perform.
Virtual classes for spring were put together that were well received — Intro to Theater, Storytelling, Radio Theater, Improv and an Auditioning for Musical Theater workshop.
Soon, the couple began thinking about Summer Camp, a mainstay at Actors Garden.
“I know that e-learning was problematic for a lot of families,” Gigi said. “So I was nervous about offering it, especially a camp that goes 9 – 3, but once we dipped our toes into the Zoom waters, we felt a little bit more comfortable on being able to create a program and curriculum for Summer Camp as well.”
Dave contacted children’s musical publisher and musician Denver Casado of Beat by Beat Press. Casado pulled in book writer Jessica Penzias. Dave wrote lyrics and the trio created The Show Must Go Online in 17 days from writing through release.
“The response was phenomenal because we really didn’t know … how many schools and programs around the country and the world were really impacted and looking for some outlet for their students and this really seemed to fit the bill,” Dave said of the musical which was released on April 13.
Because of Beat by Beat Press’ reach, The Show Must Go Online was quickly licensed to many worldwide, up to 700 at this point according to the website, in 30 countries including Japan, Norway and Canada. Dave had similar success with another show he collaborated on with Denver Casado – Tut Tut, where “King Tut meets Prince and the Pauper,” according to Dave.
The Show Must Go Online premiered at the Actors Garden in July during The Actors Garden first session of Summer Camp. Families sent photos of themselves gathered around watching the “silly show” about a musical being cancelled then resurrected online. Both campers and viewers, including grandparents living as far away as Australia, were treated to the completed production which pulled together the students’ individual recorded parts.
Another new show Dave wrote in its entirety was also put on, Through the Screen.
With the second session of Summer Camp in full swing, students, ages 8 to 15, are experiencing a camp that is as close to in-person for the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekday schedule as Gigi can make it. She said she hired nearly as many employees as she would have if they were at Dominican University, where summer camps have taken place in the past. And making the theater experience a positive one throughout the process, while making a product that the kids are proud of, remains a goal, according to Gigi.
They have kept up traditions of past summer camps, too. There is daily trivia; a joke of the day; campers are highlighted, literally with the help of Zoom technology; and camp prizes are awarded, hand delivered to their doorsteps by Dave. Having high school and college counselors who are former campers helps bring more “human connection,” Gigi said.
Still, not everyone wanted to sign up for more screen time. The Hudson’s said they saw a 30 percent reduction in attendance for online offerings. And they felt they could not charge the same they would for an in-person camp even though the camp duration is the same each day. What was $800 per session before has been reduced to $650.
And they are finding much of what they are doing takes more time. There are technology hurdles and editing that needs to be completed. Most of this is done by Dave who has an IT background.
But the couple is upbeat and planning for fall.
Gigi said they will continue online classes and will consider adding in-person one-on-one sessions and possibly some small groups, up to eight. Programming at The Actors Garden can range from ages 4 to 94, she said.
“Our hope is we can offer something that’s an outlet…” Dave said. Gigi continued the thought, “And find ways to physically engage even though we still have a screen in front of us.”