The Ventura High School Theater Department cordially invites all to watch their murder-mystery play beginning Thursday evening.
The catch? It’s all online.
“Zoomdunnit?” is an original play written by four Ventura High seniors — Ramsey Dillon, Kylie Pence, Jaidyn Sellers and Chloe Wastell — with theater teacher and director Stefoni Rossiter that will be performed Thursday to Saturday.
Other Ventura County high schools in neighboring districts have put on musical concerts and plays as a way to continue their programs through distance learning. At Newbury Park High School, for example, the school’s theatre department is putting on a virtual broadcast of “Alien Invasion” on Jan. 28-30.
Moving the theater program online
When schools first closed in March, Ventura’s rendition of “Cinderella” was cut short. The department cobbled together a Zoom reading, but Rossiter recalled many technological difficulties.
Over summer break, Rossiter said a few seniors approached her during the summer about continuing the theater program.
“Because it was the seniors’ final year and, and I didn’t know what was going on, I let them really take the lead,” Rossiter said.
After much brainstorming, the seniors decided they wanted to write and perform a murder mystery.
Sellers, 17, said they were inspired by movies like “Clue” and “Knives Out” as well as “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a 2012 comedy described as “a hilarious hybrid of Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes” on its website. As the title suggests, things go wrong for the actors in the play.
Rossiter said there are some elements of that in “Zoomdunnit.” There’s one part in the play, for example, when an actor talks while muted.
The core group of writers and Rossiter worked for about four weeks in the fall on the script, sharing and workshopping pieces until they got the final product.
“Honestly, it was such a positive experience,” said Sellers.
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The play takes place over an hour through a series of scenes set at a mansion.
Rossiter explained that theater at Ventura High is not a class. As an extracurricular, the students had to put their free time into the program to participate.
“I want to say that I did cast every single person that auditioned, which is not something that I usually do,” Rossiter said, “because I wanted anybody who wanted to be creative right now to get that opportunity.”
As such, there’s a range of talent from first-timers to seasoned performers like Sellers.
The cast added their own touches to the characters, solidifying the originality of “Zoomdunnit.”
Preparing for the show
“Acting over Zoom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I think,” Sellers said. “There’s no connection with an audience. There’s no connection really with your castmates.”
“For the freshmen, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be and how hard it is to maintain that inspiration and that drive to perform because they have nothing to compare it to,” she continued.
Both Rossiter and Sellers said they were impressed by the younger cast members.
Online, Rossiter explained she had to coach students to sit up rather than sit back in their chairs and look at the camera rather than at themselves or cast mates on the computer screen.
“I’ve seen tremendous growth,” she said.
There are 18 cast members and six crew members for “Zoomdunnit.” The students practiced about one hour three times a week, with more rehearsals this week.
Despite the online experience, Rossiter said there will be costumes like any other production. With input from two students in charge of costuming, Rossiter went to the costume room at Ventura High and pulled a bunch of pieces. Then at home, she held costumes up to the camera so students could pick their clothes.
From there, she sealed them up in bags and left them outside for students to drive by and pick up.
Normally, a production would include seven performances. This year, Rossiter chose to do three because students have so much extra, different work due to distance learning.
Lessons for the future
The performance on Friday was pushed to 4 p.m. because a performer couldn’t do 7 p.m. that day, but Rossiter said it’s been a positive thing.
Because of the early time, she invited her friends and former students who live in different time zones to watch. She said it’s something she’ll take into consideration when planning future performances — online or in-person.
She said she will consider livestreaming performances even after returning to campus, something the larger theater community is considering.
“We know that for a long time, there are going to be people that won’t feel safe coming into a theater,” Rossiter said.
Sellers said she’s grateful to have the experience and being part of writing the first Zoom play for Ventura High’s theater department.
“That’s very special,” she continued.
Rossiter said though it’s been hard. The kids are trailblazers.
Tickets for the shows are $12 per household. Show times vary. Visit https://onthestage.com/show/ventura-high-school/zoomdunnit-4357/ for more information.
Shivani Patel covers education for The Star as a Report for America corps member. Reach her at shiv[email protected] or 805-603-6573. She is also on Twitter at @shivaaanip.