When Kyle Banks took over the Byram Hills High School theatre department in 2021, he was stepping into a whole new world in more ways than one.
Aside from adjusting to his new roles as choir director at the high school, co-teacher of the H. C. Crittenden Middle School choir, and director of the Varley Players, the BHHS Jazz Choir, and the Byram Beat a cappella club, Banks was also adjusting to the world of the performing arts at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was completely uncharted territory,” he said. “We always did things a certain way, and then suddenly we just couldn’t do them that way anymore, and we had to come up with completely new strategies.”
As the pandemic surged, forcing students into at-home learning, those new strategies included virtual rehearsals, maintaining 12 feet of social distance during in-person rehearsals, and masking during performances. The adjustments made putting together collaborative performances even more complicated. It left the company struggling to find their familiar groove.
Despite the challenges they were facing, the Varley Players persisted.
The Varley Players Persevere
“It speaks to how badly the arts are needed in a time like that,” Banks explains. “We as the production team and the students were all still so committed to making it happen, and I think it was really appreciated by everybody in the community both on-stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience.”
Banks was thankful to have the support of multiple previous leaders within the department, such as former director John Anthony Lopez, who he worked with for a year prior to Lopez’s retirement from the district in 2021. He also credits former assistant director James Gulick and other Varley Players leaders who remained on board through the pandemic, including Susan Pieratti and Danielle Brooks, for guiding him through the transition. Banks’ background as a music director at other school districts and as a theatre performer himself further prepared him to tackle this new challenge.
Some of the changes implemented, such as the extended rehearsal period allotted to the company during the production of their Winter 2021 musical Fiddler on the Roof, did allow them to put on a fantastic show despite COVID restrictions.
However, for the students who had regularly taken part in theatrical productions and other extracurricular activities at Byram Hills, not being able to see their peers in-person or come together as a group without masks and social distance was yet another obstacle. Across the board, Banks describes, it was tough for the kids to acclimate to a COVID-era social world. He notes that having the theatre department up and running, in whatever capacity they could, helped students find a sense of belonging, a consistent social circle, and alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty of the time.
Now, the company has been able to return to normal rehearsals without social distancing and masking. Banks says that the change has been a breath of fresh air, and has made everyone involved in the production process even more grateful for the opportunity to perform together for the first time in nearly two years.
“It was huge,” he said. “The energy that it brought to the production and to everybody involved was really incredible, and since then it’s been a lot of the same; everybody’s super grateful to be back to normal, to feel like we can do these things again without having to worry too much.”
Returning to full performances after a nearly two-year break didn’t come without an adjustment period of its own. Both the students and the production team had to re-acclimate to demanding, in-person rehearsal schedules and working together as a group once again, as many in the cast, crew, and production team felt “out of practice.”
On Meeting the Challenges
Regardless, Banks says, each member was more than willing to put in the work required to get back into the swing of things.
“We all realize how much we were missing because of the pandemic, so to be back doing that again, whether it’s a bit challenging or not, it’s worth it,” he said.“It is such a community and it provides such an outlet, and it can be a huge stress reliever, even though sometimes it gets stressful.”
Whether it be getting involved on the production side to sing, dance, act, work together as a team, and step outside oneself for a few hours, or on the viewers’ side to escape the day’s worries and enjoy a live show, the arts played a powerful role in getting people through the height of the pandemic.
“There’s something indescribable about the feeling you get when you put on a show with the people that you care about so much in the company. I think it’s really helping everybody, on my side, on the production team side, for the cast, and providing these artistic experiences for audiences as well,” Banks explained.
In the future, Banks looks forward to welcoming new faces to the Varley Players and expanding the program even more. He looks forward to students becoming more involved in the process of putting on a show and taking ownership of more of the aspects that make it up, both on the cast and crew side.
He describes a slight dip in participation during the COVID years, as many were out of school, unavailable, or uncomfortable participating in certain group activities, but also finds that numbers have been steadily increasing in the time since.
“If I ask any number of people who do theatre at Byram Hills what the most important thing is to them, the first thing that comes up is the sense of community and family that comes with it,” Banks said.
That family persists beyond students’ four years at the school, as evidenced by their upcoming spring production of Freaky Friday: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Byram Hills High School alumnus Tom Kitt.
“It’s a really fun show, the cast is really excited about it and so is the production team. The energy has been really electric since we started the process,” Banks said.
Audiences can come enjoy the show on March 9th, 10th, and 11th.