Until recently, the threat of coronavirus still seemed distant. Even with several cases in Oregon, life in Eugene went on as normal. Plays and other music productions rehearsed, anticipating their March openings.
Then, the situation worsened, and on March 13 Gov. Kate Brown announced a ban on gatherings of 250 people for the next month. That canceled or postponed three local stage productions practically moments before they opened.
I was in one of them: Very Little Theatre’s production of a musical version of Little Women. Another, Eugene Opera’s Tosca, was also canceled after the final dress rehearsal. Both shows, as well as Sunset Boulevard at Actors Cabaret, were to open on the same night, March 13.
Regardless of what happens with this show in the future, being a part of the musical has been an unforgettable experience for the entire cast of Little Women.
In early November, I had to muster a lot of courage to audition for this show. I never thought I would have as much fun as I did through callbacks, when I eventually received the role of Clarissa (the heroine in Jo’s story). One of my favorite parts was sword fighting on stage.
I was excited to act alongside the talent of the March sisters, as played by Hailey Eckhart, Morgan James, Sabrina Gross and Alycia Thatcher. Kari Bolden Welch directed the show, with Russell Dyball as the assistant director. The cast totaled 15. Little Women was a first play for many, and a first community production for others. It was my first show since high school.
“I was really happy that from the auditions we were able to bring in people from all pockets of local theater,” Welch says. “It felt like what community theater really should be.”
After three months of rehearsals, I walked in the dressing room on the night of our first performance — a free preview with friends and family in the audience — to a despondent look on the actors’ faces. They asked me if I had heard the news from our director, that this might be our only performance after months of rehearsals crammed into our daily schedules. I hadn’t.
We gave preview night everything we had. The tears and the emotion in our voices were raw and real. Everyone hoped to at least have opening weekend.
The next day, we heard that in an exercise of caution, VLT was suspending all normal operations, including our show, even though the theater seats only 220 people — just under the limit.
The large and diverse cast grew close during rehearsals, which made the abrupt ending more difficult for everyone. When I found out things were suspended somewhat indefinitely, I was honestly devastated at the injustice. We all were. It was as if a chapter in our lives had ended in the middle of a sentence.
On what would have been our planned opening night, we had party of sorts. Instead of performing our show, the cast and crew drew different character names out of a hat and performed an improv version of the musical on stage to an audience that included just our music director and VLT costumers. We laughed so hard, we cried.
“Every single person in the cast I feel like I could sit down and talk for hours,” says James, who plays Jo. “I felt like I gained a lot of familial understanding with the cast.”
Gross, who plays the sweet but strong Beth March, has performed in many local shows and says through this one, she has also made lasting friendships.
“I think the relationships that happen on stage and the interactions people see on stage, they were all formed off stage and translated onto the stage,” Gross says. “I really do think it was the fact that we were such a close cast that made the show what it was.”
And though that closeness may never occur in the same way again, it won’t be easily forgotten.
“The show is so much more than this one girl finding her place in the world,” James says. “It’s about passion and love, and love after loss. And how to grow through immense pain. And beyond that, how to find your place in the world when you don’t have a place.”
Toward the end of Little Women, Jo sings “The Fire Within Me” while grieving the death of her sister. It is through this song that Jo realizes her purpose, understanding how she can immortalize the memories of her sisters through a book, though it will never be the same again.
And to echo James, the beauty of Little Women isn’t necessarily that Jo gets the story of her sisters published (which she does), but of her process getting there and creating something meaningful.
And I think my cast and crew would agree that, though we are uncertain of the future of the show, what we created still matters.
Right now, there is talk of getting to perform our Little Women with VLT at some point in the future. How this will play out, and whether all the original cast will be involved, I don’t know.
But I do know that I will never forget watching James from stage right during our preview performance, emulating the fire and passion of Jo March as she stands and finishes the song:
Here in all the smallest details of the past
Here in this attic, life is something vast
The four of us forever here at last
As unexpected as can be