Jesus Christ Superstar production at Notre Dame Stadium showcases resilience, creativity, and community of musical theatre students and faculty

Author: Carrie Gates

Jcs Notre Dame StadiumJesus Christ Superstar was performed in Notre Dame Stadium on April 9. Photo by Peter Ringenberg
 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Matt Hawkins wanted to teach his students the value of resilience — and the power of performance art.

When campus closed in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19, Hawkins, director of the musical theatre minor in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, and his students had already spent months planning and rehearsing for the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre’s spring musical — a modern interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Once students returned to campus in the fall, he could not shake the idea of the musical and what it had meant to his students, and he began seeking ways to see it through to completion.

In a time when nearly all live theatre has been suspended for more than a year, Hawkins found a way to make it happen — safely, and in partnership with faculty, staff, and students from across campus.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why am I doing this and what does it mean? How do you quantify art and experiences like this?’” Hawkins said. “And the word resilience kept coming back — that’s what this is about. As an educator, I wanted to show my students — and myself — that this could still be done and that it still has value. These students can take that skill and apply it to anything now, even if they’re not doing art.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Why am I doing this and what does it mean? How do you quantify art and experiences like this?’ And the word resilience kept coming back — that’s what this is about. As an educator, I wanted to show my students — and myself — that this could still be done and that it still has value. These students can take that skill and apply it to anything now, even if they’re not doing art.”

Teagan Earley As Judas Jorge Jay Rivera Herrans As Jesus
Teagan Earley '20 and Jorge "Jay" Rivera-Herrans '20 perform as Judas and Jesus. Photo by Peter Ringenberg
 

On Friday, April 9, Jesus Christ Superstar was performed at Notre Dame Stadium, featuring most of the original cast — including 2020 graduates Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans and Teagan Earley, who came back to campus to perform the roles of Jesus and Judas, respectively.

When planning the show, Hawkins’ primary focus was on safety. He met with Mark McCready, a professor of biomolecular engineering and senior associate dean for research in the College of Engineering to better understand the science of aerosols and how to keep both the actors and audience safe during the outdoor performance. He also removed most choreography and blocking from the show, so that the actors could remain farther apart at stationary microphones.

But the move to the stadium, which allowed for social distancing between performers and among the audience, also allowed Hawkins to add elements that would not have been possible in the original venue — like bringing in the 60-person Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra and 50 members of the Notre Dame Folk Choir.

“Innovation and creativity are born out of necessity,” Hawkins said. “Once we had decided on the new venue, it was exciting to say, let's make it feel more like an arena concert and have the actors in the stands with the choir so that the video board is behind them. Let’s make these theatre kids feel like rock stars.”

“Innovation and creativity are born out of necessity. Once we had decided on the new venue, it was exciting to say, let's make it feel more like an arena concert and have the actors in the stands with the choir so that the video board is behind them. Let’s make these theatre kids feel like rock stars.”

Jcs OvertureJesus Christ Superstar Overture. Photo by Peter Ringenberg
 

With support from projection designer Ryan Belock ’12 and the staff of Notre Dame Studios, Hawkins also incorporated multimedia elements on the stadium’s 95-foot wide video board — including prerecorded fictional newscasts and social media threads — that supported his original vision of a 21st-century setting for the show.

“A big part of the conceit was that it was going to be happening in this time — and asking how would the general public respond to the arrival of the Son of God, through social media and technology?” he said. “So it was really fun to have access to this space, and it was a great partnership.

“I was really proud that we were able to balance the safety considerations with the artistry of a show.”

Although seating was limited for the event, more than 1,000 people attended — including many of the performers’ families, who were in a separate section from the students who attended.

“It was incredible to be able to have so many of the students’ parents and grandparents there and to give that gift to these families,” Hawkins said. “This was a moment of community and a celebration of the human condition — and a memory that will stay with all of us from this very challenging year.”

 

Originally published by Carrie Gates at al.nd.edu on May 05, 2021.