By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
And the beat goes on.
And, at John Paul II High School, so does the show.
While safety precautions and guidelines have disrupted many aspects of everyday life, especially on school campuses, the Fine Arts Department at the Plano school has met those challenges head on, holding a number of performances.
“I couldn’t be more impressed than I am with our fine arts students,” said Michael Browning, who serves as JPII’s director of fine arts as well as the band and orchestra director. “Our kids are smart. They work hard. They are engaged.”
In December, JPII’s orchestra, band and choir each held holiday performances for the school community by making use of the school’s large competition gymnasium. The band and orchestra each set up on the gym floor, socially distanced, with audience members socially distanced in the stands on Dec. 9.
“The other thing I did was split the concert. The orchestra came in first at 7 p.m., performed and then we had a 20-minute break to clear out the audience before the band audience was ushered in,” said Browning, adding that all health-and-safety protocols were also followed including temperature checks, social-distancing and use of masks. “It was great. We have such supportive parents, and they all understood.”
The prior night, the choir concert reversed the roles, with the choir socially-distanced in the stands and audience members on the competition floor.
Browning said the biggest challenge the school faced with COVID was determining how to keep socially-distanced and still have a coherent performance. During the concerts, orchestra members wore masks while band members only pulled down their masks when necessitated by playing instruments. Choir members sang while wearing their masks. While guidelines suggested performers be 6 feet apart, the spacious gym allowed JPII performers to be 8 feet apart. The choir concert also was livestreamed while the band and orchestra concerts were recorded to be shared online later for those with health concerns or who could not attend.
“I’ll never not either livestream or record a concert again because it’s such a great community outreach,” Browning said. “To me, that really plays into the family-oriented environment we have at JPII.”
Browning praised administrators, faculty and students all for making the performances a success.
“We have a great faculty, who are very engaging with the kids and have such a positive attitude,” he said.
Browning also was quick to praise JPII’s athletic department for its cooperation during the concerts.
“We are really fortunate at JPII that we have a great relationship between fine arts and athletics,” he said. “This is the heart of basketball season, but those guys couldn’t have been more supportive.”
JPII’s theatre department also has been busy, holding performances in the fall and readying for shows this spring.
Terry Tuck, JPII theatre director, said the year has been a case of hit and miss when it comes to developing protocols.
“After finding clear masks and adapting them to be as safe as possible, the choice of play became key to maintaining social distance on stage,” said Tuck, explaining that the in the fall, JPII actors performed Tom Andolora’s “Spoon River Project.” “A collection of monologues this allowed us to perform and still maintain social distance.”
Tuck also built a plexiglass box for students to perform in without using a mask.
Next, JPII’s theatre students will be performing “Schoolhouse Rock Jr.” Since it is a collection of songs, actors have a lot of leeway in the manner in which they stage the play and can limit contact without the performance being compromised.
“Backstage actors have stations with sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer,” Tuck said. “Each actor has his own bin and all of his props, his mic and mask are kept separate from everyone else. Our audience is also limited in size, social distanced and masked.”
Ultimately, Browning said the performances offer some sense of normalcy for students while also working to keep them engaged with their school communities.
“Kids need a way to express themselves. Kids need that community. To give them this outlet, we really worked hard this summer,” he said. “While we couldn’t do everything like we normally could, we did what we could. Was it perfect? No. But, right now, we felt like we had to keep these kids engaged.”