Miette Hanowell, center, performs in a November 2020 Enlightened Theatrics production of "101 Dalmatians" at the Grand Theatre (Courtesy/Enlightened Theatrics)

Miette Hanowell landed her first paid acting role at age 11, playing Emily, the child at the center of a classic Christmas poem, in Enlightened Theatrics’ production of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” last year.

Linzi Hanowell said getting the role was an early accomplishment for her daughter, now 12, who has always loved singing and dancing and wanted to spend more of the year performing.

“We just had all of these things planned out and then Covid hit and it was dead stop,” she said.

So this fall, when Hanowell saw the theater was mounting a small youth production of “101 Dalmatians,” she asked Miette if she wanted to sign up.

“It was exactly what she needed,” Hanowell said. "She’s social. She missed being with people.”

While most performing arts venues and organizations in the Salem area have shut down live shows this year, Enlightened Theatrics has retooled its usual programming with small productions and workshops for kids and teens.

Now, they’re planning for a production of "Les Misérables," taking up to 30 middle and high school students who will be split into smaller cohorts for rehearsals. The show will begin production in January and is scheduled for four live-streamed performances in February.

Vincenzo Meduri, the founding artistic director, said Enlightened Theatrics normally runs a season of professional shows during the school year, with camps over the summer.

After they canceled the season in the spring, Meduri and operations director Aubrey Near started thinking about how they could serve kids who were going without in-person arts as school moved online.

“We’re creative souls, we love interaction. We believe that social interaction is imperative for youth especially,” Meduri said.

They decided to put on a show.

Near directed the “101 Dalmatians” production in the fall, keeping the cast separated into two groups of 10 for rehearsals in different parts of the building. Each student had a marked area on the floor they had to remain in. Temperature checks and masks were required every day. Most costumes, masks and other needed items were donated.

“It was wonderful to see the community involvement and support around our decision to stay in operation and shift our focus in education,” Meduri said.

The run concluded with four live performances in November, mostly attended by families of the cast, who sat spaced out in the Grand Theater at about 15% capacity, Near said.

“We just really want to create a safe space for kids to be creative and to do theater when they’ve been kind of attached to their screens for so long,” Near said. “And we just know that they’re not getting the kind of culture they get normally.”.

The “Les Misérables” production will employ similar protocols, Meduri said. With theaters and venues closed under state pandemic orders, the theater had to purchase broadcast rights so the show can be live-streamed. Meduri said they’re expecting plans will have to change based on the state of the pandemic and performances may open to family of the cast if Covid restrictions are adjusted.

Their switch to youth-focused theater hasn’t been cheap. Near estimated the cost to put on “Les Misérables” at about $10,000, even for the scaled-back version they’ve planned. That includes broadcast rights for the script, about $2,600, and a significantly discounted $2,000 rate for a local company to produce the live-stream. The show will use recorded music since there’s no way to have a performing orchestra indoors under Covid regulations.

A $125 charge for each child participating in the show might cover the costume, she said, but won’t recoup the production cost or make a dent in Enlightened’s operating costs for the year.

Near said Enlightened normally has about 20 to 25 people on payroll including actors, technicians and more. This year, they’re down to her, Meduri and one part-time employee.

She said many people don’t realize the costs that come with a staged production.

“It’s expensive to do theater,” Near said.

Meduri and Near said they’re hopeful donors will support the latest effort, which includes scholarships for kids whose families can’t cover the fee to participate. More information about the show and donations are on the group’s website.

Hanowell said Miette and her older sister are both signed up to participate in the show. She plans to watch live if she’s able, or live-streamed if not.

“As long as the kids get to do something, I’m fine with however I see it,” she said. “And if I don’t get to see it at least they have some fun.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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