The energy is electric backstage at a Theater Bug rehearsal. Kids in face shields are running around — mics taped to their cheeks. Hairspray is thick in the air, as they finish doing each other’s hair. They shout “Places!” and chatter nervously to one another.
Director Cori Anne Laemmel tells them to get their “focus on.” She hops up on stage to introduce the show, “Selfie the Musical” — an original play about what it’s like to be a kid online.
Laemmel says this show felt timely, because the pandemic made a generation who grew up online even more reliant on it.
“This has been a big year for kids on screen,” she says. “I mean, their entire lives, their schooling, their friendships, their relationships, everything has moved behind the screen.”
Cast member Kevin Rome, 16, says the pandemic intensified his usual anxieties about social media. He felt pressure to post what he thought other people would want to see, because his Instagram was one of the only ways he could connect with friends.
Working on this musical changed his outlook on that.
“Being part of this show, you learn that there are people out there who may not be happy with what you post,” he says. “But there are also people who are going to appreciate you and accept you and hype you up, no matter what.”
That’s part of the goal for Theater Bug shows. They tackle issues facing kids, says 18-year-old actress Serena Alexander.
“It’s about reminding ourselves and others to choose kindness in that space as much as any other space,” Alexander says.
In the show, she is part of a tight-knit crew of girls who throw a party.
“I’ve never been part of a group that I would consider … popular?” she says laughing. “So, that’s an acting challenge!”
Even though the characters are popular, they have the same worries that other kids do. They fret about their clothes, or if the music at their party is all wrong. They just don’t ever post about that.
A major theme of the show is that there is always more than what meets the eye — and that applies beyond the stage. Theater Bug went through a lot of challenges this year that audiences might not pick up on.
Peeling back the curtain a bit: less than a month before the show was scheduled to open, Laemmel says the group lost their performance space.
“We ended up needing to move out pretty quickly. It was a pretty unexpected turn of events,” she says. “We had something like seven hours where we realized we were going to have to get out of the space.”
On top of that, the cast includes kids as young as 6, who can’t be vaccinated. So, the live show cast is a lot smaller than usual.
But they came up with a creative solution: recording video of other cast members and projecting them on a screen behind the stage doing the same dance moves and singing along.
While the adults have been stressing, Laemmel says the kids aren’t phased.
“Their gratitude for just being able to be here every day is the thing that reminds me that I’ve got to pull it together,” she says. “Because they are not coming in here weighted down by anything, they’re coming in here so thrilled that they get to be in the same room as the people they love.”
The internet might reign supreme, but she says it’s really no match for live theater.