ELGIN — Putting on a musical during the COVID-19 pandemic is a tricky and painstaking process.

Terry Hale, executive artistic director for the Elgin Opera House, knows this firsthand. Hale is directing a film version of Disney’s popular “High School Musical Jr.” with a 70-member cast, the vast majority of whom are high school students.

“It is one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” Hale said.

It is also something he believes he had to do because of how youths have had to stay home so much during the pandemic.

“We wanted to get them out from behind their screens,” said Hale of the production, which Friends of the Opera House is putting on.

People will be able to purchase tickets to watch “High School Musical Jr.” online. The film will be designed to replicate the experience of watching a theater production at the Elgin Opera House.

One of the trickiest parts of the filming process involves conforming to social distancing rules. Six groups of actors are having their scenes recorded at the Elgin Opera House over about a two-month period. The video recordings will then be spliced together, so in many instances cast members will appear to be performing on stage together even though they were never in the same place at the same time.

“It really is a puzzle,” Hale said.

“High School Musical Jr.” — the movie version came out in 2006 — is an upbeat and witty look at students dealing with issues of love, friends and family at fictitious East High School.

“I wanted to have something fun and light after the rough year we have had because of COVID-19 and the political turmoil,” Hale said

The cast for the production consists of actors from Union, Wallowa, Baker and Umatilla counties, plus Walla Walla County in Washington. Many of the actors, almost all age 18 and younger, have not been together at filming sessions because of social distancing rules.

“The cast will never be together at one time for the production,” Hale said. “It is the first time I have directed a production in which the full cast can’t come together.”

Cast members are meeting in small groups for rehearsals before coming to the Elgin Opera House for filming sessions.

“They are all doing such a tremendous job. I am so proud of them,” Hale said.

Hale also said he is receiving a big boost from his directing staff — assistant director Caitlin Marshall, choreographer Abigail Hale, music and sound director Becky Chelson, costumer Maureen O’Brien, stage manager Shelby Kealiher, cheer coach Jessica Dearinger, scene artists Beth Wasley and Tess Cahill, and Brent Clapp, who is managing the filming and editing process.

“Our staff is incredible,” Hale said.

This is the first time almost all of the cast and many of the staff have been involved in a film production. Actors moving from stage productions to film must learn that they have to be more subtle because they no longer must speak loud enough for everyone in the theater to hear them, Hale said. He noted everyone has a microphone on during the filming process, so speaking too loudly can cause recording issues.

Hale said the need for perfection is greater in film productions.

“Mistakes that are not obvious in theater come through on film,” the director said.

Cast member Ian Califf said he is enjoying learning about cinematic style, but he will miss performing for a live audience.

“I get a spark from the audience,” Califf said.

Fellow actor Hunter Adams shares this sentiment.

”Now I have to create my own energy,” Adams said.

Cast member Joseph Hale noted even though the full cast is never gathering at once, he still feels a connection to all the members.

Blake Rasmussen, one of the cast’s adult actors, said he is enjoying the chance to learn about film acting.

”It is super fun with a different vibe,” said Rasmussen, who plays the role of a coach.

Rasmussen said he found that in film acting it is more important to be on an even kilter and there is less opportunity for spontaneity. Rasmussen said when performing on stage he sometimes adds impromptu lines and gestures in response to the audiences.

Misty Hines, who has played many on-stage roles in the past, said the “High School Musical Jr.” film experience will help cast members in the future when they return to stage acting.

”It will give us so many new experiences to draw upon,” said Hines, who plays the role of a detention room teacher in the musical.

Hines said she is delighted to have the opportunity to be acting again after the pandemic shut down local productions.

”I so missed my theater family,” she said.

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