The show must go on: How STU’s musical theatre class adapts without a stage

Instead of making students adapt to a traditional course, Tania Breen developed St. Thomas University's musical theatre program around COVID-19 limitations. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

Almost a year ago, the St. Thomas University musical theatre program performed its production of Sweeney Todd. COVID-19 headlines were picking up in the news, but New Brunswick didn’t have a single case. Though a few weeks later, classes moved online and a pandemic had been declared.

All courses struggled to adapt to online learning, but some had a clearer path than others. Students were unsure how a musical theatre course could work in the upcoming academic year.

Tania Breen, the musical theatre instructor at STU, wasn’t sure what was happening with the course. The whole theatre industry was trying to adapt to a world without a stage.

“Everyone was trying to do the same thing. We were all trying to figure out, how can we do this in a way that keeps the students engaged?” said Breen.

Breen said musical theatre has a unique set of challenges. Because of COVID-19, singing in person isn’t possible and no affordable technology exists to practice singing in groups remotely without delay.

She said different schools took different approaches in adapting their programs. Some schools made students isolate as a group for the whole semester.

Tania Breen, a musical theatre instructor at St. Thomas University, said some schools took different approaches to adapt their musical theatre programs. (Keith Minchin/Fredericton Playhouse)

Instead of making students adapt to a traditional course, Breen decided to develop the course around COVID-19 limitations.

“Rather than aiming for a large, fully produced performance, I focused on what we could do, which is studying [the] process and focusing on solo work,” said Breen.

This includes working on solo voice training, audition workshops and building a repertoire. In a regular year, they would dedicate September to late February to preparing a musical for performance and there would be little time to focus on improving these techniques.

Breen said during a typical semester, it’s always “go, go, go.”

“This is really in a way a gift for those that need to or want to develop, they have the whole year,” said Breen.

Michaela Macaulay, a fourth-year STU student who has taken the course for three years, said she appreciates the extra time dedicated to technique.

“This year, we have been able to jump deeper within and work alongside a couple different people to help us with it,” said Macaulay.

Michaela Macaulay, a fourth-year student at St. Thomas University, has taken musical theatre for three years and she appreciates the extra time dedicated to technique. (Submitted: Michaela Macaulay)

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the theatre industry as a whole. Breen said this meant that professional performers were more flexible and had time to meet with the class. Throughout the course, students had the chance to work with professionals, including Broadway performers Tony LePage and Justin Collette, both from New Brunswick.

“It’s pretty interesting to see these people coming from New Brunswick going on and going on Broadway,” said Macaulay. “Being able to talk to them about their experience growing up in a small town in New Brunswick and then going off to work on such big projects.”

Students have also been creating their own musical pieces, characters, story arcs and writing their own lyrics.

Breen said she was impressed with what they’re doing in terms of writing together. She said she hopes to keep some of the changes to the course once in-person courses resume.

“It’s so wonderful to see the results of that and to see how it fires up the students’ creativity and their desire to explore what we just covered.”