Covid may have temporarily darkened the stage, but tradition eventually triumphed as high school theater is back at Tosa East and West. 

by Rick Romano

Everyone loves a comeback story. It wasn’t easy, but the traditionally excellent theater troupes at Wauwatosa East and West High Schools proved the show must go on – despite dealing with the limitations of a pandemic. Theater Directors Collen Jaskulski at East and Adam Steffan at West said the key to overcoming the obstacles was a combination of dedicated students, administrative support, and the wonders of technology.

First, the reality

It was in March of 2020 when we were working on our Mary Poppins production,” Steffan says. “The pandemic hit, and we unfortunately had to cancel that production. It was just a very sad time, hard on students – especially seniors. To have that taken away really did affect those who found such joy in theater.”

That joy for the Trojan Players, he said, did not go completely away. While the audiences were not allowed to be present, Tosa West found a friend in technology.

“It was a real threat, and we could have shut down,” Steffan says, “but to finish out the year, we put a series online. The idea was to keep the students engaged. It wasn’t ideal, but we had wonderful support from school administration, so we made it as successful as we could.”

Across town at Tosa East, Jaskulski was in her first year directing the Tosa East Players when the pandemic hit.

“We had a first weekend of theater in spring of 2020, and it went off without a hitch,” she says. “By the end of the following week, the world began shutting down. It was challenging for sure. I was a first-year teacher and now you had to go virtual with an online curriculum.”

Moving on

Coordinating academics and production required looking at online coursework and developing alternative methods to produce and present productions. At East, the 2021-22 season found performers and those behind the scenes still wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Jaskulski said audiences were limited and spread out throughout the auditorium.

Tosa West deployed similar strategies.  “We were fortunate to be able to do an online series and eventually come back to the stage,” Adams says. “Last year felt more normal. We had full shows.”

Happy boosters

Back to normal was a relief for parent booster organizations, which provide much-needed financial and awareness support.

At Tosa East, Friends of Theatre Arts President Jen Hardman said her group had a challenging time raising funds during the pandemic.

“For example, we could not sell concessions during performances, because they were not held,” Hardman says. “In general, we had to scale back, which was a disappointment. Now that everyone is back, there is much more enthusiasm.”

Tosa West Theatre Boosters President Molly Hannan similarly describes her group’s experience.

“Whether it is selling program ads or serving meals during tech week or any other support function,” she says, “it was just not the same during the pandemic. No one was comfortable. It really made us realize just how important it is to have a rich tradition of high school theater.”

Extending the tradition

That tradition has helped Tosa West secure a coveted opportunity to present Disney’s “Frozen.” Steffan says the process involved an application requiring an explanation of “how we might produce the production.”

The school was selected through a nation-wide program – “The United States of Frozen: Love is an Open Door” – which gave one high school in each state the opportunity to present. The program was designed to promote inclusion and outreach in high school theater productions. Sponsors include Disney Theatrical Group, Educational Theatre Assn. and Music Theatre International.

Steffan says when the word came in that Tosa West was selected, the reaction was palpable.

“The kids were screaming and crying,” Steffan said, noting that they grew-up discovering the Disney story. “There has been so much excitement. Our new principal announced it.”

Tosa West’s Disney rights include producing three performances of Frozen with each performance limited to 500 audience members. Royalties apply to audiences of greater than 500. The school gets a free digital script and score as well as a video license.

There is no set date, yet, but the production is scheduled to take place in 2023.

Good to Know 

Helpful information about the theater programs at Tosa East and West:

  • Quality productions are only part of each Tosa high school’s excellence. Curriculums include acting, technical production and associated theater studies.
  • Directors at both schools, find their work rewarding. “Over the past 11 years, I have really seen the growth that has transpired while so many people have contributed to the success,” said West’s Adam Steffan. East’s Colleen Jaskulski added, “I feel blessed every day.”
  • To find out more about Tosa East and West Theatre, including production schedules and classes, go to tosaeasttheatre,com and