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There’s no stopping ‘Sister Act’ at Greene Street Friends: The middle-school musical goes virtual

When school shut down in March, students were three weeks into rehearsal for "Sister Act Jr." It was decided the show must go on — online.

Nia Daniel, 11, at her home in Philadelphia's Lawndale section. A sixth grader at Greene Street Friends in Germantown, Nia is playing Deloris  — the Whoopi Goldberg role  — in the school's spring musical,  "Sister Act Jr." The show's being rehearsed on Zoom and filmed by students from their homes.
Nia Daniel, 11, at her home in Philadelphia's Lawndale section. A sixth grader at Greene Street Friends in Germantown, Nia is playing Deloris — the Whoopi Goldberg role — in the school's spring musical, "Sister Act Jr." The show's being rehearsed on Zoom and filmed by students from their homes.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Three times a week, Nathan Siegel and Denali Gillaspie log into Zoom and wait for their nuns to show up.

“It’s like truly the highlight of my week to get on the Zoom call and all the kids just like start appearing ... with their little nun costumes," said Siegel, director of Sister Act Jr., this spring’s middle-school musical at Greene Street Friends School in Germantown. "It’s the exact opposite of everything else about coronavirus.”

It’s tough to keep theater kids of any age down, and while the pandemic has shuttered the places audiences once gathered, it’s unleashed a flood of creativity online as performers adapt to technologies that weren’t necessarily designed for putting on a show.

Being in middle school may give the Greene Street players an edge over many adults as their production makes the transition from a stage performance to a taped one, with sixth grader Nia Daniel as Deloris, Whoopi Goldberg’s character from the movie.

"I find that being on the Zoom calls with like twenty-five 12-year-olds, there’s actually many fewer technical difficulties than we have at faculty meetings. The kids all know how to do it, which is great,” Siegel said.

So far, there’s a trailer that combines some scenes from the pre-shutdown rehearsals with newer, socially distanced ones recorded by individual students from home. The final product will ultimately be uploaded to a password-protected Vimeo site and shared sometime soon with the school community. (The licensing for a show like Sister Act Jr., an hour-long version of the Broadway musical that was adapted from the 1992 movie, doesn’t include public streaming rights for a full production.)

It’s been a learning experience for the adults.

When Greene Street first shut down in March, Gillaspie, the show’s musical director, said, “we were thinking that we’d probably be able to come back to school [before summer], and we were hoping that we’d be able to perform some of the ensemble songs that we had done choreography for” during the first three weeks of rehearsals. “When we realized that wasn’t happening, and it was spring break, Nathan and I were like, what if we just recorded everyone’s parts?”

Their first idea: Record the whole thing on Zoom. “That went out the window really fast,” Gillaspie said, as they encountered the now familiar issues with internet drops and people unable to hear one another, “but students have been recording themselves, and it’s worked out really well.”

» READ MORE: Narberth's "American Idol" hopeful Louis Knight talks about performing from home on iPhones

The first few weeks, “we were very much like, we are making this up as we go along. Thank you all for your patience, and the kiddos were so resilient and they just adapted,” Gillaspie said.

The nuns’ habits, like everything else, were improvised. “Some of them look so real,” Gillaspie said of the combinations of black and white shirts or fabric, while on others it’s occasionally possible to spot a T-shirt tag.

Nearly all the cast members, whatever their other roles, are part of the nuns’ ensemble, which is open to “any gender,” Siegel said. Greene Street, which runs from prekindergarten through eighth grade, routinely casts this way, he said, noting that Jessica Holly, an eighth grader who plays Mother Superior in the show, starred as newsboy Jack Kelly in last year’s production of Newsies.

"One of the lines in [Sister Act] is about surrendering your gender. We were like, this is great. Anyone can be a nun,” Gillaspie said.

Not every school community, Siegel and Gillaspie acknowledged, has the resources to pull something like this off. For instance, “it’s a huge privilege” for students to have both a computer for Zoom calls and a second device to record themselves, Gillaspie said.

Making magic, remotely

For Holly, the virtual show has been an opportunity to stay creative.

“It’s fun to see everyone’s faces on the Zoom calls, because we get to connect and share this experience with each other,” said the 14-year-old, who’s attended Greene Street since kindergarten. “I have to remind myself that this is a real musical that we’re doing. And we have to put as much effort into it as we can in order to make it as magical as it would have been on the stage.”

Working remotely, “we did this one thing where we had to pass like, a costume across our screens. So [Siegel] told us to, like face one direction, and pass it and the other person had to grab it. And it’s kind of hard to do. But then once we started, like posting together, it actually looks natural and interesting,” Holly said.

Nia Daniel, the 11-year-old playing Deloris Van Cartier, the singer-turned-protected-witness who’s hiding out in a convent, said it’s “been a fun experience for me,” though one that’s teaching her patience.

“You have to pay attention, and you really have to do twice as much than if we were in school,” she said.

What will she miss in not performing before a live audience?

“Clapping, definitely,” she said. And “like this might sound weird, but the nervousness [of] just being there.”

First question: What’s Zoom?

“This was my first time using Zoom. I’d never even heard of it,” said Elizabeth Clancy, an eighth grader who’s playing Sister Mary Robert, a shy nun who finds her voice with Deloris’ help. “At first, I thought that this was going to be terrible, and that we weren’t going to get anything done. But it actually turned out to be really great.”

The technology’s also helped her acting, she said. “Honestly, before this, I had hated hearing recordings of myself and just looking at myself performing. And during this experience, it’s actually taught me to really look at myself and learn from what I’m seeing and think about how I can make my performances better.”

Clancy, 14, has been at Greene Street since prekindergarten. She’ll be attending Lower Merion’s Harriton High School in the fall, and has her sights on Broadway someday.

Holly, who’s headed to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts — and, she hopes, a career in acting — said that "when I go to CAPA, and I’m like around people and I have an actual stage again ... I’ll just keep trying to keep the same energy I have here at home.”

Daniel, with two more years to go at Greene Street, is hoping to be back in school this fall.

"I miss it way more than I expected. I miss all of it,” she said.