When Ocean Township High School (Monmouth County) drama teacher Chelsea Gower was planning for the 2020-2021 school year, she was determined that her students would have the opportunity to perform and showcase their talents. As happened in many school districts, the spring 2020 production had to be cancelled after the statewide school closures due to the pandemic. 

Gower teaches 80-100 students each year and is the adviser for the school’s drama club, the Spartan Players. Participants come from all different grades and experience levels, and many are from the Spartan School of Visual and Performing Arts, one of the three career-centered academies within Ocean Township High School. 

“I wanted to do everything in my power to bring students back together,” Gower said. “Theater’s most impressive power is that it bonds all involved for life.” Gower’s solution was to do a movie adaption of a show, so it could be viewed safely by an audience. 

She hunted for a show that could be staged outdoors with minimal scenery, since the school was doing remote learning at the time. She found it with Brian D. Taylor’s comedy “The History of Dating,” a “zany musical romp through history and a fun, fast-paced look at the woes and wonders of dating through the ages,” as described by the show’s publisher. 

“We planned on in-person auditions in the high school courtyard but on the day of auditions, we were told we would be going virtual due to a spike in coronavirus cases,” Gower said. “In minutes, we quickly adjusted and provided a Zoom link for students to perform monologues. Callbacks were online, too.” 

Rehearsals were conducted outdoors under the tents in the courtyard, since OTHS was in hybrid learning format during this time. “We were in those tents from September to November,” Gower said. “We were extremely careful the whole time, kept masks on, were outside at all times and were bathed in sanitizer!” 

Gower had a connection with a prominent Jersey shore area recording studio that agreed to edit the movie.

“With days left of shooting before Thanksgiving, we worried that we’d soon be under quarantine. Sure enough, that Friday night we were told on Monday we would be doing two weeks of virtual school. The entire production team scrambled, working long hours to film everything in the last day; for the final shot, we had one take to get it right.” 

The production was shown through an inventive venue: a drive-in movie theater. “With the help of a parent, we filed all of the needed paperwork, secured licenses, made promo materials, secured board of education facility usage and janitorial approval and ordered portable toilets,” she said. “A big issue was the screen. We ended up hanging an immense tarp on the side of the building that school district maintenance staff secured. An outside sound company set up the screen, transmitter and speakers. Parents and students sold concessions. We created a QR code playbills for cards.” 

On a Friday and Saturday evening in February 2021, more than 120 cars filled with local families and high school students came to watch the drive-in show; audio was through car radios. Gov. Phil Murphy even made a special appearance in a taped introduction for the show.

 “The History of Dating: A Theatrical Movie Production,” was honored as a Recognized program in the 2021 School Leader awards, which showcased creative and effective programs and practices that New Jersey schools used to address the challenges of remote learning created by the COVID-19 school closure.

“COVID has made these past years tragically tough for many, and for students this period has been incredibly difficult for them to have what we would call a normal school experience,” said Jeff Weinstein, president of the Ocean Township Board of Education. “What this class showed was an amazing amount of ingenuity, fortitude and problem-solving skills to meet the challenges the hybrid and remote environment presented. They overcame many obstacles, and the life lessons they learned in creating this production will be useful to these students throughout their lives. I congratulate the students, their teachers and the administration on this award.”

Alix Hayes is a member of the Ocean Township Board of Education and nominated this program for the award. She is a former television reporter and is currently a corporate communications and public relations professional.