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Innovating in pandemic, Ledyard theater students present murder mystery musical filmed in their homes

Ledyard — Performing alone in one's bedroom or kitchen in front of a camera held by one's parent was a new concept for the theater kids at Ledyard High School, and the unusual nature of filming has come with its funny moments.

Abby DiRico's dog opens doors with his head and busted into one of her scenes in "A Killer Party: A Murder Mystery Musical." Evelyn Morrison said her college-aged sister was studying for finals "and I'm over here like shouting in the next room."

But filming the funny show has been a serious endeavor: Students have spent many hours shooting, and director Melanie Cometa has spent many hours sound mixing and editing, to produce a 90-minute virtual musical.

In other words, a feature-length film.

The show is airing one night only, Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets to the stream can be purchased at bit.ly/killerparty21, at $10 for students, $15 for adults, and $20 for a family viewing pack, with a pay-what-you-can option.

"It's really been a baptism by fire since March of 2020," said Cometa, choral and theater director at LHS. "We have a really active performing arts program here, and my band colleague Zach Thomas and I, we just didn't want to stop making music; we didn't want to stop pushing our kids."

The chamber choir performed a virtual rendition last spring of "And So It Goes" by Billy Joel, a grid of the 20 members singing separately. In the fall, Cometa officially decided a digital musical would happen this spring.

Students recorded their songs in February and March, Cometa did the audio mixing and mastering, and then the actors filmed individually in their homes in April, lip-syncing to the songs.

It's a process that has turned families into "acting coaches and cameramen," Cometa said. In her video editing, which she has learned through trial and error and YouTube tutorials, she decided to leave in an "error": In one scene, you can see the student's dad holding a ring light in the mirror.

"You could do everything as many times as you wanted to make it right, but it was also stressful," junior Matt Bourguignon said, "trying to figure out lighting and angles and where to look and everything."

He said most of his scenes took place in the kitchen. This meant working around meal plans and not having anything in the background on the Sunday he and his parents filmed all day.

"It was definitely not an easy task," Morrison, a senior, said. "It took me about four days to get all my filming done, because first you had to find a place in your house that wasn't too crazy or too clustered."

She had a ring light and also bought a cheap tripod at Walmart, and her family recorded on her phone.

For some scenes, students came to the high school's media studio to use the green screen.

'I felt like a little bit of a movie star at times'

The plot of "A Killer Party" involves a theater director inviting his company over for a dinner party to read his new show, but the host is murdered and a detective comes to solve the case. The detective sequesters the guests — hence why the actors can perform alone in separate rooms.

Some of the shots are spliced together to look like one character is talking to another in a doorway, or that one character is handing something to another through the frame.

DiRico plays the detective, a meter maid finding her big break with this case. She is in almost every scene, and she recalled a week where she was filming five hours a day and had three tennis matches.

"I felt like a little bit of a movie star at times, with all the cameras and the lights," she said.

DiRico was used to working off of other people. But here she had her dad — who she described as "not really an actor kind of person" — reading opposing lines, because she needed to react to something.

Broadway professionals collaborated remotely to create "A Killer Party" last year, as a way to sustain themselves "creatively and financially" while out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cometa came across the show and purchased the licensing for Ledyard High School.

"I have to weigh safety for my students and the audience, and I also have to think about the quality of the experience, and practically I have to think about the possibility of students getting sick or being quarantined," she said.

Unlike other schools, Ledyard High School has not lost a musical during the pandemic: There was a musical in the fall of 2019, and the musical this academic year was pushed from the fall to now.

e.moser@theday.com

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