Finding Catharsis in a Time of COVID

Catharsis in theatre, first introduced by Aristotle in Poetics, represents a process by which the intense and tragic emotions of the actors in a performance spread throughout the audience, as though they too have experienced such heightened emotion. Over the course of the show, the audience is given the opportunity to process these intense feelings, and finally resolve them, creating an emotional cleanse for both the actors and spectators.

While much has changed since Ancient Greece, our need for catharsis remains evident in the rising popularity of true-crime podcasts during the pandemic, and, in the arts world, darker and more evocative pieces. It comes as little surprise then, that when asked what Arts & Learning should perform in Spring, our students opted for a much heavier show than those usually put on by the Conservatory.

“Why Les Miserables?” we asked our cast. They answered that the deeply emotional nature of the show and each character’s feeling, and strength allowed for a special acting challenge as well as a personal opportunity to processes the tumult of the last two years together with their peers. We noted the kindness and respect that the students approached each other with almost immediately. When presented with a lesson in stage consent, the cast erupted into a chorus of “is that okay with you” while blocking a tense scene.

To create a truly moving show, our director knew that the students needed every safety precaution, while also allowing them to get close enough for performances to shine through. The production team diligently required weekly COVID testing of all cast members and staff, with masks worn in rehearsal until just a few weeks before opening. During tech week, student and team testing increased to every other day, to ensure that the show would absolutely go on. With masks removed and everyone healthy, the students were able to blossom into their characters and scene work, often leaving team members moved to tears by the end of rehearsal. Students too, were surprised at their own intensity on opening night, allowing themselves to get absorbed in their parts and the action of the show leaving audiences cheering, heartbroken, and greatly impressed.

“This is amazing production quality for a children’s theatre,” one guest enthused after the show. “I haven’t been this moved by a performance is a very long time,” another admitted to us in the days after closing.

Throughout the pandemic, school, work, and the pressures of everyday responsibilities, rarely slowed enough to allow many the opportunity to process losses and struggles endured during this tumultuous time. This show highlighted the grief, loneliness, rage, crisis of identity, social injustice, tenderness, love, and hope prevalent in both the production and the zeitgeist of the pandemic. Through our diligent safety precautions, our students were able to create a piece of art that showed many for the first time, the true impact of live performance and left many students with increased confidence in their craft and a deeper connection with their peers.

Perhaps what we needed, as a community, was a safe space to be, well, miserable, with the hope that in processing these emotions together, we may emerge from this time stronger than before.

The Arts & Learning Conservatory is a 501c (3) non-profit that caters to K-12 students in Orange County and beyond, providing high quality, equitable and accessible arts education, in-house and through partnerships with the community.