Freshman theatre student finds allure of theatre to be much more powerful than pandemic

After landing a part in ‘Urinetown’ and working on crew for ‘Clue,’ Danielle Todd-Harris can’t wait for the next production

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Kennedy Weatherby

Freshman Danielle Todd-Harris (back left) poses with fellow “Urinetown” police officers in the middle of “Cop Song.” “I was really excited every night because I missed being in a theatrical setting,” Danielle said when talking about “Urinetown.” “I was happy to be a part of the show even though I might not have had the biggest role.” “Urinetown, the Musical” was an important milestone of this school year, being both the first production on the outdoor stage and the first McCallum show of the school year.

Ingrid Smith, Mac photojournalism

When Danielle Todd-Harris, a rising performance theatre star, chose McCallum, she didn’t expect to be braving the elements and wearing a face mask for outdoor theatre rehearsals.

To Danielle, theatre means community and the joy that comes from working together to create a meaningful performance. Danielle had big hopes and dreams for her theatre experience at McCallum, but as the global pandemic transformed the world around her, her vision of community and teamwork had to shift. The theatre program of Danielle’s freshman year meant adjusting to the unexpected and finding opportunity in innovation.

Just to be a part of the experience; that was all I really wanted even with COVID-19, even without COVID. Just to be a part of the show.”

— freshman theatre major Danielle Todd-Harris

Danielle discovered her passion for acting when she participated in a theatre summer camp around age 5. After that, she did camps at ZACH Theatre and the Paramount Theatre, took part in Shakespeare and acting programs at her elementary and middle schools, and looked for opportunities to improve her skills and get on the stage. When the time came to pick a high school, Danielle was excited to take what she loved to the next level and decided McCallum was the program that would best help her achieve her goals.

“When I found out that McCallum was a fine arts school, I was like, that’s where I want to go,” Danielle said. “I heard some really really good things about their theatre department. Getting in and auditioning — some of the greatest feelings in the world, really.”

By the time high school started in August, the whole world had shifted. All learning was remote, requiring teachers and students to shift to an online school format. Danielle’s goals of participating in theatre productions, auditioning more, and feeling like a true part of the McCallum community had to be put on hold. The McCallum theatre experience Danielle envisioned started to feel out of reach and difficult to achieve. As life seemed to scale back, Danielle had to find new ways to get as much of the high school experience as she could, despite being in a pandemic.

Danielle’s mother, Mary Harris, explained this difficult transition.

“I think she’s learning to adjust to what’s not a perfect situation, to be a little more creative in theatre, that it’s not always going to be a regular stage and face to face with people, and all those things they’re not getting right now. I think she’s also learning to put herself out there a little bit more and to connect with people, especially people who are the upperclassmen — connect with them and get their thoughts on things, seek that encouragement.”

Senior performance theatre ambassador Molly Naiditch thinks that freshmen theatre students have gotten a very different experience this year. To her, freshman year was about coming out of her shell, forming a connection of trust with her classmates, and learning the importance of teamwork, as theatre is a “team sport all the way.”

Molly fears that freshmen in the theatre program this year have not gotten the same type of interaction and learned the valuable lessons that come with being a freshman, as Zoom doesn’t have the same type of class energy.

With so much of the year focused on Zoom, Molly believes that freshmen will “probably have a different skill set, but I don’t think they’ll lose anything in terms of quantity in their skill sets.” “I think it’s a different world that we’re entering for theatre, and I think [the director] is doing amazingly with it.”

Danielle says that theatre this year has not been what she expected, but definitely what she needed.

“This year, these are new people, new faces, new teachers, new everything,” she said.

It is hard for freshmen to feel engaged in the community of the school when they have never even met classmates and classrooms look like a sea of black boxes. Danielle, who was accustomed to lots of social interaction and so excited about McCallum, felt like a whole part of her life had been taken away in the early part of the year.

Danielle, however, found a way to get the theatre experience and feel like a true part of the McCallum theatre community during this strange time: performing in the fall musical, Urinetown, and working crew for the spring production, Clue: Live on Stage.

“My goals were high but not too high, so I knew what I was getting into with the musical, and I know what I’m getting into with the play. Just to be a part of the experience; that was all I really wanted even with COVID-19, even without COVID. Just to be a part of the show.”

[Freshmen will] probably have a different skill set, but I don’t think they’ll lose anything in terms of quantity in their skill sets.”

— senior performance theatre ambassador Molly Naiditch

While Danielle had a small part in Urinetown, she was at school from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. four days a week, and at least 8 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, rehearsing. The Clue schedule required a similar commitment. Danielle says the rigorous rehearsals have been the most challenging part of theatre this year. Even in the cold days of winter, Danielle and her cast mates bundled up and rehearsed on the outdoor stage the McCallum community funded and built.

“It’s fun to be a part of the experience even as a freshman because I know that that’s a thing with high school theatre: as a freshman you don’t have as much of a chance of getting a lead,” Danielle said. Even without starring roles, Danielle says, “It’s still really fun and I’ve made some friends along the way.”

While theatre has looked different this year, Danielle says in some ways it still felt like a normal rehearsal process. In terms of COVID-19 precautions, rehearsals were outdoors, hand sanitizer was regularly dispensed, and there was a virus check in at the beginning of each rehearsal. Also, the actors wore see-through masks, meant to improve both social interaction at rehearsals and the quality of the show for audience members who could read the actors’ faces. Although the lack of theatre productions in the early part of the year took a toll on theatre kids like her, finally being able to be in a show, even with the challenges of outdoor productions, was amazing.

Despite the actors’ hard work and commitment, some aspects of their shows were out of their control. Both productions faced multiple weather cancellations due to rain, and even a rare snow storm. The February snow storm left many people without power, and put school, including theatre rehearsals, on hold for a couple of weeks, resulting in a lot of lost time. Show and rehearsal cancellations marked yet another challenge in Danielle’s theatre year, but she and the other show participants persevered and put on two productions that held up to the high standards of pre-COVID McCallum theatre shows.

Freshman Danielle Todd-Harris and other McCallum theater students gathered on Nov. 11 on the Mac tennis courts to learn song and dance in preparation for auditions for the spring musical, “Urinetown.” “It felt good to do an in-person audition again,” Danielle said when looking back on this memory. After months without theater in her life, Danielle, sixth from the left in the white shirt, says that participating in her first McCallum production felt amazing and that it was just what she needed. (Dave Winter)

“It’s so much fun to watch my fellow cast members perform,” Danielle said. “It’s just so incredible and inspiring to see them perform and how they have kind of been like ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be OK.’”

Danielle says that it was really cool to participate in something with people who have a shared love and understanding of theatre. She hasn’t been hesitant to reach out and make friends in the theatre program, as she finds comfort in the idea that everyone in her class and the musical is there because they love theatre. By reaching out and bonding over favorite musicals and plays, Danielle has managed to find her place in the theatre community. Danielle says she loved having an experience like the musical where she got to bond with others, especially older students, over something she loves, while doing it in a productive way.

“These are some of my best friends that I’ve had and I’m so grateful to have them whether they were in the musical with me or not,” she said. “I had two in the musical with me, and I’m making more friends along the way.”

Working on crew has given Danielle another opportunity to connect with fellow theatre students and experience parts of the theatre industry that she hadn’t had much exposure to before attending McCallum. “Working crew for ‘Clue’ gave me a unique perspective of the theatre industry,” Danielle said.

[The pandemic] has not at all changed her passion for theatre. … I think it’s just made her want it more and look at other ways that you can do it.”

— Mary Harris, Danielle's mom

Danielle fondly remembers the first time the cast of Urinetown ran through Act 1 of the musical. The cast exchanged “good lucks” and “have a good run, everybody’s,” and they got in their places.

Danielle felt like a weight was lifted from her shoulders in that moment, as there was a sense of finality and excitement when she knew the experience of finally being in a high school production was real. The director, Joshua Denning, told the cast that the run-through was amazing and that he was proud. Danielle recalls another run-through where the director was taking notes and told the cast that he stopped halfway through, as he was having a lot of fun just watching.

“The biggest compliment you can get as a cast is that it’s fun to watch because the show, really, is ridiculous,” she said about Urinetown. “It’s ridiculous but it’s so funny, and it’s got an incredible meaning and just knowing that our director saw that from us was probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in my life.”

Although this school year may not have been exactly what freshmen like Danielle envisioned, there is a lot to be said for pushing past the challenges, adapting to a new school format, and making the best of what you have. Danielle said that she couldn’t be more proud of what the theatre program accomplished this year.

“Over the summer, I had a pretty clear idea of what my freshman year would look like theatre wise and now it’s way different,” Danielle said.

This school year has been full of innovation and challenges for Danielle, but she says she feels accomplished for having the experience of being in a high school production as a freshman, as well as working crew and making the best of a crazy school year.

It’s just so incredible and inspiring to see [my fellow cast members] perform and how they have kind of been like ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be OK.”

— Danielle Todd-Harris

“I’m getting back in the swing of things, so I’m definitely very proud of myself for how well I’ve taken to the online rehearsals or in-person rehearsals that are socially distanced,” Danielle said.

Mary is proud of Danielle for “having the grit that you need right now through COVID. We all need a little grit to get through this.”

Despite the unique challenges of this year, Danielle has solidified her place in the McCallum theatre community and has gotten as much of the high school and theatre experience as she can during this trying year. In fact, Mary said this pandemic and the challenges at hand have only fueled Danielle’s passion for theatre more.

“It has not at all changed her passion for theatre,” Mary said. “That’s all she talks about — theatre at school, what’s going on on Broadway, she’s already planning our next trip to New York, going to Chicago to see shows. That has not faded at all, actually. I think it’s just made her want it more and look at other ways that you can do it.”

Theatre means the world to people like Danielle, and it brings so much joy to everyone that takes part in it, from actors to audience members. This shared love of theatre and the power of community are what push people like Danielle to continue doing what they love even in times like a global pandemic. In fact, Danielle seems to know that what we all really needed during this difficult school year is the joy that comes from high school theatre.

“To me, theatre means community,” Danielle said.