The Hilltop Players fight to ‘keep theatre alive’

Last spring semester, in fact, this entire year, was supposed to be one to remember for the Hilltop Players.

With productions for “9 to 5” and an original, student-written play in the cards, it was looking to be a phenomenal semester for the theatre-oriented, on-campus organization, filled with song and dance and lots of rehearsals.

Everything was coming up Hilltop. … Well, up until late March, anyway.

Suddenly, both productions were canceled, much to the disappointment of the organization’s executive board members, and Hilltop had to scrap their plans for the rest of the spring semester.

Senior performances that were supposed to happen, be it in “9 to 5” or “The Love Star,” never happened at all, leading to a mix of emotions from those who, after four years of putting their hearts, souls, and talents into Hilltop, never got to take their final bow in the Dwight Performing Arts Center to rapturous applause.

Instead, those seniors only graduated with thoughts of what could have been.

Danni Umanita, ‘20, described her reaction to the news as “not easy to take in.” 

“Hilltop works hard for an entire semester for only three nights of performances,” Umanita said. “To put so much hard work and dedication into a show, just to be told it’s not happening, was heartbreaking.”

Hilltop members who remained at Framingham State, though, had to think fast about what they were going to do next in a world where the COVID-19 pandemic reigns over everyone, rendering live theatre too much of a health risk for both audiences and performers alike.

Within months, the Hilltop Players began to greatly increase their social media presence – no longer using it to post teasers for their upcoming productions, but, instead, using it as a way to engage with those still involved with the organization.

Seniors Jenna Topping and Alex Surro, the president and vice president of the Hilltop Players, respectively, discussed their feelings regarding the early curtain call for their year.

Topping said, “It’s been a little difficult, because we didn’t really know what to do when we were told that we couldn’t do what we normally do, which is [to] perform shows. So, we had to improvise and try to find the best way to keep people engaged and also keep doing what we love to do.”

Topping added “it’s just hard” to get people on campus, given the global health crisis, finding it “difficult to be a theatre organization” in these times.

Surro noted that Hilltop “prioritizes safety more than anything,” as they want to avoid the possibility of putting themselves in “danger.”

He said, “As much as we want to get back to rehearsing and back to seeing each other again, it’s just not realistic during this time, unfortunately, which is why we’re trying to do everything we can virtually. … Whatever it is [we need to] do to keep theatre alive in this pandemic.”

The pair also shared their thoughts on the cancellations from an organizational perspective.

Surro said, “My initial thought was [that] I got hit by a ton of bricks, and it felt that nothing was going to go right.”

He added that his cast and crew spent two months preparing for “The Love Star’s” showtime, but he didn’t know what would happen after spring break.

“I remember making a speech on the last day of rehearsal, that we don’t know what’s coming next and that we know that the virus is swirling around, but we just don’t know if this is the last time we’ll be seeing this rehearsal space – and, unfortunately, it was,” he added.

Surro said, “I knew that I did everything I could to connect with my cast and crew and say that ‘it’s OK if this is the last time,’ because I know that what we created in the last two months will last forever. What we created is too important, too valuable for me to just let it go and forget about it.

“Although we may never perform it on stage, the family it created will last with me forever,” he said.

Topping related to Surro’s sentiments and said that the team for “9 to 5” were “trying to be hopeful” that the virus would pass by quickly, but those hopes were not realistic. This in mind, they “tried to leave it on a good note.

“A huge part of theatre is the performance aspect, and that’s how the audience can be involved,” she added. “That was really hard [to have that] get taken away, but because we had those strong bonds and that we had the experience we had, we tried to rely on that to get us through and have us be thankful for what we had.”

As far as their mission of spreading the word about the Hilltop Players through social media goes, Topping said that “it’s hard to keep that connection through a screen when we’re all in different locations.”

She added, “We’ve been trying to do movie nights and games and [other events] to get people involved – for some people, they just need to perform, and in this unusual setting, it’s just hard to do that.”

Surro noted that the engagement on their Instagram posts, as well as their meeting attendance, has decreased a fair bit.

 He refused to call the phenomenon “catastrophic,” but it was “disheartening” when Hilltop hosted a virtual dance workshop that featured Chaz Wolcott – a New York City-based actor, director, and choreographer who famously made a name for himself in Disney’s “Newsies,” playing the role of Buttons in that musical’s First National Tour – only to have five people show up.

He added, “At the same time, we can’t let that get to us, because it’s not what we’re doing – we’re doing everything we can, in my opinion, to make Hilltop what it can be in a [COVID-19] era. … We’re just doing the best we can in publicizing and creating new events, virtually, and doing everything in our power to make theatre alive again, because it is so important to us.”

Monique Plante, ‘20, the former president who was present during the cancellation of Hilltop’s planned productions, also spoke on the “devastating” experience.

“I will never forget the day that I heard that we had to cancel all of Hilltop’s events,” Plante said. “Our [executive board] officers had a meeting with our advisor the morning that we all went home for spring break, and he told us that ‘due to the unknown dangers of COVID-19,’ we had to cancel all in-person events.

“I was not ready to be done with Hilltop so early. All I could think about was all of the hard work everyone had put in that semester and how I had to tell them it was all canceled,” she added.

As with the case with Umanita, Plante was disappointed, but thankful about her senior performance being canceled, stating that “as much as [she’s] sad about not getting to perform my last show, I mostly miss the people in Hilltop. … They will always be my family and one more show would have been a great way to go out, but I’m so grateful for the time I did get with them.”

Topping and Surro are hopeful about the future of Hilltop, ideally in a COVID-less world.

“I think it is a big, massive thing to think about,” Surro said. “Taking everything that you’ve learned over the years, everything that you’ve gathered and then leaving it.”

He hopes that, when their time to graduate approaches, underclassmen will be “happy with what [he] and Jenna did for this organization,” at least to the point where those individuals are inspired to “take a stab at it and lead this organization to what it should be.

“We just want to make sure that it [Hilltop] stays afloat. We’re not trying to make sure that it’s exactly how we left it, we just want to make sure that it’s stable and able to continue onwards. If I want to graduate in peace, I want to make sure that my hard work didn’t go to waste or fall flat, because I didn’t make an impact,” he added.

You can stay informed about the Hilltop Players on Instagram [@fsu_hilltopplayers], where they post weekly, themed prompts based around musicals and plays, such as “Wicked” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”