Students respond to pandemic through theatre

The Department of Theatre and Dance’s cast and crew of [IN RESPONSE] started their upcoming online show with nothing but a blank piece of paper and an idea.

Left to right: Jenna Makkawy, West, Scott Olinger filming in Kimmel theatre.
Left to right: Jenna Makkawy, West, and Scott Olinger filming in Kimmel Theatre. (Photo by Maggie McClellan.)

After months of work, students have turned that blank page into a through-provoking, online cabaret-style spring musical that streams March 5–14. 

Associate Professor of Theatre J. West says it’s the story of right now.

“It’s incredible,” said West, who is directing the show. “It’s laughter, fun, dance, silly, beautiful, poignant, painful, and hard-hitting all in one.”

[IN RESPONSE] is a devised play. The cast and crew created it from scratch by taking on the roles of playwrights, singers, dancers, and actors. 

“The main idea behind the show is putting our ensemble’s response to the wild ride that was 2020 and beyond even into a virtual showcase,” said cast member and B.F.A. in musical theatre student Jenna Makkawy. “Us ensemble members spent many rehearsals brainstorming overarching themes and sharing our experiences and feelings with each other about what happened, or didn’t happen, in 2020 due to the global pandemic taking over the world.”

Students learned a lot through this experience, but it wasn’t always easy. Many emotional highs and lows filled the past year. First-year student Sophia Mitchell says the actors express that pain, anger, and joy throughout the show.

“We touch on a wide variety of things from big things like COVID-19 and the protests to smaller things like being stuck in quarantine and taking classes online,” Mitchell added. “I think it is a story about students trying to cope with the constantly changing world.” 

From left to right: Maggie McClellan, West, Josie Wulf, and Scott Olinger filming and recording Wulf's spoken word.
From left to right: Maggie McClellan, West, Josie Wulf, and Scott Olinger filming and recording Wulf’s spoken word. (Photo by Emma Hughes.)

West says [IN RESPONSE] includes songs of every genre of popular music, performed by amazing voices, dances that will awe audiences, and powerful words. As part of the devising process, students worked for hours with Heather “Byrd” Roberts ’09 who is a spoken word artist. She graduated from Cornell with a B.S.S. degree in performance art. 

“I think my favorite part of the creative process for this show is seeing all the pieces fall together,” Mitchell said. “At the beginning of the rehearsal process we were just spouting out ideas and now it is an actual show. I also have gotten to explore in a completely new style of theatre which has been really amazing for me!”

Members of the Cornell community might recognize the characters because they are acting as themselves on stage: Peni Waqairatu, Dominic Favorito, Josie Wulf, Jenna Makkawy, and Sophia Mitchell.

For health and safety reasons, the characters never all share a scene together. They all filmed their portions of the show with just a few other crew members and the director. 

“Each one of them individually steps into Kimmel theatre and finds it dark and alone and the halls and the room are quiet. And they turn on the light and they have a bit of time in a space that’s familiar to them,” West said. “Wonderfully they sing, they speak, they dance, and they take a minute and they put their mask back on and go to class. They keep going.”

One scene offered the challenge of moving two people in the same space. They were physically distanced and fully masked the entire time. 

 “It was a challenge that choreographer Eddie Forehand leaned into and he created something incredible,” West said.

As students devised this show together West said something happened that they didn’t expect. Something that surprised them. 

Musical Director, Janelle Lauer (left) is coaching Sophia Mitchell during a vocal recording session. (Photo by: Maggie McClellan.)
Musical Director Janelle Lauer (left) coaches Sophia Mitchell during a vocal recording session. (Photo by Maggie McClellan.)

“I expected these college students to offer writing that is filled with burning anger. I expected it,” West said. “That’s not what they gave. It’s in there–the frustration, the anger, a very clear-eyed perspective on injustice, racism, misogyny, social-economic imbalance. But balanced with that was a clear tone of ‘we will continue, we will move on, we will fix it.’”

Students say they’ve learned a lot about devising a show, but they’ve also learned a lot about themselves in this process. 

“I would hope that if the audience could take away one thing from this show it would be that things need to change for the world to be better and sometimes those things that need to change, are us,” Makkawy said. “I feel that I have changed a lot in how I see myself and see the world through this time of reflection and isolation. I would like to think that if each and every one of us sat down to reflect and take the time to breathe and see how we ourselves affect others, that the world would be a better place. I hope that we are on our way there.”

This link for [IN RESPONSE] will be available at 7 p.m. on March 5 and will remain open until midnight on March 14. It’s free to view but registration is required. Those interested in the show can get more details at