Faced with unique challenges to perform on stage, Riverhead Blue Masques turn to film

The Riverhead Blue Masques are coming to the big screen.

In a production unlike any other in the high school’s history, the thespians will perform Disney’s “High School Musical” as a film rather than a typical live stage production. The show will be available for anyone to stream from their home in early June. And on Friday, June 4, a special showing on a large inflatable screen will bring the production to life for viewers at an outdoor movie night at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field.

A combination of COVID-19 restrictions and a late start due to last year’s budget failure set the stage for a unique journey this spring for students and staff to perform “High School Musical.”

For much of the school year, students didn’t know if they would even get the chance to perform. With sports and other extracurriculars slashed due to the budget failure, students in theater and other arts had no outlet.

“Unfortunately the arts was kind of the last thing to be brought back in because of the confined spaces and singing,” said Laura  Nitti, co-director of the production. 

In early December 2020, the Riverhead Board of Education approved funding for interscholastic sports, high school clubs and K-12 music activities starting on March 1. 

“This was a big deal,” Ms. Nitti said.

Dena Tishim, the high school choral director and the musical’s co-director, said the restrictions for kids on stage meant they needed to choose a production that could be done as a stream. Students began rehearsals by standing 12 feet apart and wearing masks, which made it difficult to hear one another. Restrictions later eased to six feet. But the challenge remained for a stage production.

In a normal year, the Blue Masques perform two productions with the bigger one in the spring. For the spring production, students typically begin around late December or early January, allowing them time to get familiar with the production and study characters. 

There was no time for that this year with students beginning  on March 1, the first day they were allowed. 

“It was incredibly concise,” Ms. Tishim said.

When the group assembled for the first time, the co-directors could see the students were a bit apprehensive based on not knowing what the production would look like. 

“Quite honestly, Dena and I didn’t really know what it was going to look like at the time,” Ms. Nitti said. “We were putting on the rah-rah great face, but we really didn’t even know what was going to happen. Everything was so up in the air.”

But what they saw immediately was a willingness from the students to do whatever it takes and a thirst to get back on the stage and do what they love.

The co-directors could see the level of commitment in each rehearsal.

“We heard from a lot of parents that said thank goodness this is back,” Ms. Tishim said. “Because this is what keeps them engaged.”

More than 30 students have taken part in the production. Ms. Tishim said they began with the idea of streaming the show, but it gradually turned  into a film production.

Ms. Nitti took the lead on the film side, helping to bring new aspects to a typical stage production. There were plenty of challenges ahead from filming different scenes, to recording audio, mixing audio and finally editing a final product. Ms. Nitti said her son, Jacob, who’s a 2019 Riverhead graduate and is currently studying music industry in college, agreed to assist with the audio work. Students Morgan Stromski and Dave Loddengaard created the lighting design for stage work utilizing the school’s new lighting equipment.

The students set up in the orchestra room with microphones and recorded vocals while listening to audio tracks to prerecord all the music.

Rather than a typical stage as the set, the students used all different parts of the high school as a set. For a  cafeteria scene they filmed in the cafeteria and a gymnasium scene was filmed in the high school gym.

“It became more of a movie production than a typical theater show which was new territory for everybody,” Ms. Tishim said. “I must say everyone at the school, the building, the grounds has helped us with their cooperation to be flexible this year with our needs. It’s been good to have that support.”

As the reality of the film production came into view, the students cherished the opportunity. When some restrictions began to lift, Ms. Nitti informally polled the students  as to whether they would have preferred going back to a more typical production and the choice was unanimous.

“They were very excited about doing something unique and different this year,” she said.

The production features the main cast members of Ethan Lucas as Troy, Olivia Meyer as Gabriella, Jacob Schiavone as Ryan and Dana Treadwell as Sharpay. Madison Stromski, who’s also a film student, took the lead on editing the film, a massive undertaking. Production assistant Caitlyn Brennan assisted her.

“She’s got hours and hours and hours of video,” Ms. Nitti said. “That’s tough.”

Madison plans to attend Emerson College to study film. Ms. Nitti said the editing has become her main focus in the film class she’s currently taking.

At the upcoming outdoor showing, about 300 tickets will be sold and can be purchased online in advance. Tickets will not be sold at the event, unless the full allotment doesn’t sell in advance. 

The outdoor production is being done in partnership with Friends of Blue Masques, a group of parents and community members that support the arts. The group is picking up the cost of the movie screen from Main Street Productions, which was founded by Diane Tucci. Ms. Tucci has been involved in organizing numerous events in Riverhead and is a member of the Riverhead High School Parent Teacher Student Organization. A rain date is set for Saturday, June 5.

The live showing at the football field is scheduled for 9 p.m. and tickets are $10.

Viewers at home can also watch at 7 p.m. on June 4 and 5 and at 2 p.m. on June 6. Those tickets are $15 per household.

For tickets, visit