Tom Poling, left, Evelyn Dearborn, Andrea Harmon and Dan Gilbert, some of the people involved in creating and performing “A Plague Upon Me; Or How Not To Save A Life” pose for a portrait Thursday at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

READFIELD — Continuing theater at Maranacook Community High School meant having a sense of “normalcy” in the student’s lives this past year.

But, their theater production, which premiered on the school website last week, was anything but “normal” in comparison to previous musicals and plays the high school had put on in the past — it was done with masks and filmed instead of being in front of a live audience.

With the help of music teacher Dan Gilbert, students involved in the theater program wrote, directed and starred in their own production.

“There are so many things kids suffered with this year with social and emotional needs and for these kids, theater is their ‘thing,'” said Gilbert. “Without it, they’re almost at a loss, but the kids persevered, and they are doing what they love with passion and success. Theater was one of the only normal things for them this year.”

The idea to have a virtual play started back in August right before the school year started.

As Gilbert moved sets away with student Tom Poling, Poling had the idea to write a play, since anything filmed online would be difficult to maneuver with copywrite laws. Poling came up with the idea to have a play based around a plague doctor, which made it easy to incorporate masks and the idea stuck.

They came up with “A Plague Upon Me; or How Not to Save a Life.”

“The doctor is called Web M.D. (short for Webster Master Duncan), who is bad at his job, like the website, when you Google it and the worst case scenario comes up,” Gilbert said. “But it’s renaissance themed and the kids hid inside jokes and funny bits.”

Poling, along with Gilbert and four other students, dedicated three hours a couple days during the week to write the play. The students were all in the same cohort, which made it easier to navigate time admits sports practices, homework and clubs, but the writing process started over Zoom.

Gilbert said students would be tasked with writing an act, or a scene, and then would share what they wrote for a collaborative process where students, or Gilbert, could give feedback or suggest other ideas. Gilbert said he did not have experience in writing a play before, but helped students with proofreading and ideas, but that it was mainly the student’s doing.

The casting process started before the play was finished.

“The whole show was flexible in the way that if a person in the cast had a good idea, we could add it in,” Poling said. “It was liberating in that way… we had someone do the makeup, lighting and sound and music and costumes and it all came fundamentally from the students.”

The play was done with little to no cost and incorporated previous sets and costumes. In addition, students helped with all aspects and were able to contribute items or customize a costume based around items already available. Around 22 students participated, according to Gilbert.

When it came time to film the play, it was done with makeshift camera stands using music stands and iPads. The filming was done in chunks based on students’ schedules.

Props for the Maranacook Community High School play included a doctor’s bag with limbs and a bottle of Plague Be Gone”, seen here Thursday. “A Plague Upon Me; Or How Not To Save A Life”, a Readfield student written, directed and acted play features a doctor during a pandemic who is terrible at his job. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Poling said the school usually has traditions around dress rehearsals that weren’t able to happen because of the way in which it was filmed. For an example, one of the dress rehearsal days could go until 11 p.m. at night.

Gilbert, who admitted he has no experience editing plays, edited the play and after the first showing, had to edit it more after he said the students called it a “three-hour blooper reel.”

“It’s hilarious to watch,” Poling said. “One of those things I wouldn’t watch all in one go… I would go through sort of how I would with a bad animated sitcom, for 20 minutes at a time for a good laugh.”

Poling has starred in theater productions since 8th grade and said the “cool part” about the play being filmed was being able to see himself on stage for once. Though he was Gilbert’s production assistant and not in many scenes, he still made some cameos, he said.

“In previous shows, you never get to see the final production if you are a lead because you are in so many scenes,” Poling said. “But this year, we get to see everything and fully enjoy it.”

After the process, Poling said students “didn’t know what to do with their time,” mainly because of how fun the process was, but also because of how long it took — nearly the whole year. Poling said a lot of first-year students participated and he was happy to see the turn out. In normal years, the musicals can attract people from different sports and students who normally wouldn’t participate in theater, but this year they did not see that type of turn out.

In all, Poling said it was “great experience” and said he will try to be a part of drama productions next year when he attends the University of Maine, if he has time between his engineering coursework.

“I think people learned a lot, like how to write better and how to write dialogue,” Poling said. “I think going into that, writers had little experience with that, no one had published anything or had written a play, we had to learn a lot about technical theater.”

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