Bay City Players' production, “Godspell,” lights up the lives of actors in a post-COVID-19 world

This blog is in the ninth in an occasional series written by local people and businesses as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Route Bay City features Emily Olsen, who plays a disciple in the Bay City Players production of “Godspell,” in Wenonah Park July 15-18.

I have always experienced theater with a profound sense of gratitude. This is especially true for the Bay City Players’ upcoming production of “Godspell.”

When it comes to doing theater, I am simply grateful to be involved. Growing up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, I always wanted to participate in my high school drama club, but never quite had the guts to audition. The other kids seemed so much more talented and capable than me.  I just couldn’t see myself fitting in with them, much less performing alongside them.

Instead, I got my drama fix in other ways. I sang in choirs and a cappella groups during college, I wrote and performed stories and monologues, and I became a pastor so I could spend my Sundays bringing the drama of scripture to life for my congregation. After a seminary stint in California, I ended up at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Gladwin.

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself involved with community theater. I had been at Christ the King for less than year. During that time, I had done some singing in the community and gotten to know people in my congregation who were also involved in Gladwin Area Friends of the Theater, GAFT.  That summer, GAFT was putting on an outdoor production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. They were short on people and someone remembered that I could sing halfway decently. The next thing I knew, I was sauntering onstage in a short red dress as Muzzy Van Hossmere while my congregation looked on in awe, and possibly horror, from the front row. 

What followed was probably one of the best summers of my life. I finally got to do theater and I absolutely loved it. I got to participate in telling this wonderful, sparkling story.  A story that made our community better for having heard it and all of us in the cast richer for having told it. I was hooked and I was so very grateful. 

Theater became a way for me to connect to my town, meet new people, and even do ministry in unexpected ways. It also brough me solace from the stress of work. Claiming time for rehearsals and line memorization kept me from letting my work as pastor become my life. Theater kept me healthy, it brought me joy, and challenged me to keep on learning and growing. 

Concerns about COVID-19 began to ramp up just as we were nearing opening night for our winter comedy production of “Dilemmas with Dinner.” We ended up canceling the show just days before our first performance. All that rehearsing, memorizing, and preparation for nothing, a loss experienced by theaters everywhere from Gladwin to Bay City, all the way the to New York City.

Our summer musical was supposed to be “Annie Get Your Gun.” We really held out hope for that one, even scheduling auditions, but ultimately that was put on hold too. Then came the 500-year flood. After days of rain, the rivers in our area flooded, a series a dams failed, and countless homes and properties were destroyed. Our theater building was one of the casualties. We are in the process of fundraising for a new building, but these things take time. 

I think I probably hit what felt like the bottom back in February. All the things that brought me joy in my work were inaccessible: communal singing, visiting, even just hearing someone laugh or seeing them nod during a sermon. It was dark, it was cold, and I was miserable. It occurred to me that one of the reasons I always did GAFT’s winter comedy was because laughter was an excellent way to cope with the dark awfulness that is February in Michigan. Well, that was not an option.

Then, I saw that Bay City Players was accepting videotaped auditions for “Godspell.” I’ve always loved “Godspell.” The musical is pretty much pure joy; not just the surface smiles but that deep current of joy that endures even through pain, loss, and February. I needed that joy desperately. 

I put my audition recording together with fear, trembling, and a good cry over zoom with my friend and vocal coach, Katie. All my high school anxieties came bubbling back to the surface: I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t belong, they were going to take one look and my recording and laugh. But I had to try.  The lure of that wonderful, sparkling story and the thought of how good it would feel to tell it was just too great to resist. I cried when I found out I had been cast. It had been so long since I had something to look forward to, something to hope for.

I am so excited to be part of this production. The music, the story, even the choreography has put the spark back in my life. So much of this musical is about the building of a community through learning, through love, and through loss. We all know what that feels like. We all are trying to do just that: build and rebuild our communities and learn to love again even after we have all lost so much. “Godspell” offers a story that our community desperately needs to hear. I am so very grateful to be someone who gets to tell that wonderful, sparkling story.