Do you hear the people sing? A behind the scenes interview with Director Lara Okamoto on Summit High School’s Les Misérables

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Photo by Marvin Walder

Roman Russell/The Broadside

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, Lara Okamoto, Director of Summit Theater Company and theater teacher for Summit High School, made one promise: Summit High School would perform Les Misérables no matter what.

Of course, this challenge sounds a lot more doable on paper or in a movie, where rules and regulations don’t get in the way. However, through it all, Summit High School was able to follow through and perform, yet in a very untraditional way.

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The performances utilized traditional theater blocking and a set stage, however, it was filmed outdoors and the audio was recorded separately to follow COVID guidelines while maintaining professional sound quality.

Photo by Roman Russell

Lara Okamoto, in a recent interview, shared about the challenges of putting together a performance of this scale with such tight restrictions.

Question: What were some of the challenges of putting together a big theatric performance during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Okamoto: There really wasn’t anything that wasn’t a challenge except for casting. I would say everything but casting was a challenge. Financially it was really hard just knowing ticket sales weren’t going to be as good because people were going to share streaming. Streaming is less popular than in-person shows. The constant need to change to restrictions and guidelines for safety was difficult. Changing from hybrid to in-person learning and having to change schedules constantly. I think we changed school schedules three times while we were rehearsing. The extreme risk — going into extreme risk and deciding to just move our whole production outside. In retrospect, it was the shortest period of time that we were required to be outside. It was only one week versus three months. But there was no way to know that, so I think in general we made the right decision. Figuring out recording and how that was going to work, wearing masks, blocking with social distancing especially during really emotional death scenes where people looked like complete jerks if they weren’t holding the person dying. It was just kind of a barrage of complications. But, for me, this was never a production of if it was just how. How do we do this instead of should we do this. We were always going to do this, it was just always going to look different.

Photo by Roman Russell

Question: Is there anything you’ve learned from this show you are going to apply to the future?

Okamoto: Yes absolutely! I ‘ve always directed and produced shows the same way with the way I set up the production schedule and the way that I design shows and I really really want to take away the less is more approach. I think focusing on the characters and the story out of necessity made me realize that a lot of the big production elements, as fun as they are, I don’t have to break my back to do them anymore. And sometimes we will because it’s fun, but I don’t need to hold myself to that standard because the most important thing is the people on the stage and the people behind the stage. Not the things. The things don’t make the show. They help, but they don’t make the show. The heart and soul of the production is the people. And so that’s definitely something that made this experience really special. Usually Les Mis is one of those shows where you spend a ton of money making a huge barricade and historical costumes. And I really liked our version because we didn’t. It made it really special and unique and it got to the heart of the story and the characters and focus on the incredible talent onstage. We didn’t need to gussy it up at all. It was just barebones amazing story telling.

Photo by Marvin Walder

Question: Why do you think theater is important now, during this pandemic?

Okamoto: We are natural storytellers, that’s what I always say day one in Theater 1. Theater is part of who we are even if we don’t think about it as theater. Storytelling and reenacting stories and connecting is one of the most important human characteristics. I don’t think theater is going away. Theater has always adapted and changed because we need it. We always need it. We always need art in our lives and we always need expression and we always need to find ways to relate. A lot of people always say that theater is about escaping their reality. Being a different character for a while, escaping their own life. But to me, it’s about connecting. It’s about finding yourself in the characters and its about seeing yourself in the stories and finding ways to relate to other humans. And I think that especially in a time of quarantine that is so important to remember that we’re part of something larger. We’re part of a story that happened long ago and will continue long after us and we just get to be a part of that canon and it’s pretty incredible.

Photo by Marvin Walder

Question: Lastly, why choose to perform Les Misérables now?

Okamoto: Some people might have thought that it was crazy to do a super depressing musical during a super depressing time. I found it very cathartic and I also just thought it was incredibly relatable. We talked a lot in the beginning about everything that lead up to the June Rebellion in France, and there was disease, cholera, there was a lot of poverty, people were struggling with joblessness and homelessness. The difference between the upper-class and the lower-class was just expanding and populations were booming in the city. It just feels so relevant and it feels so much like that story could be so easily told today. Another reason was because it’s a beautiful, beautiful show, the music is iconic, and it’s a really once and a lifetime opportunity for a high school level theater teacher to be able to direct student that can actually, honestly, take on these huge operatic roles. We had to because I don’t know that I’ll ever get another chance to direct this show again. So we just had to, we had to find a way.

Summit High School’s Les Misérables will be streaming on June 11th and 12th at 7 pm each night and tickets can be purchased here.

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