JANESVILLE—Participating in musicals has been the highlight of many summers for Parkview High School senior Rachel Hammes.

When the Janesville School District announced in April it was canceling its summer musical rendition of “Chicago” due to COVID-19, Hammes felt a bit lost. But thanks to a new virtual theater program run through the district’s summer school program, students in Hammes’ position will continue to sing and dance.

Students in the program receive virtual lectures for five weeks in acting, singing, dance and technology/setup for theater.

“When I really sit down and think about the summer musical, it really is sad because I kind of have an empty feeling after having done the summer musical the last three years,” Hammes said. “I was really upset about it, but when I heard about this workshop, it sounded like a good opportunity. I was glad they did this to kind of replace the summer musical.”

Tony Award-winning actress Karen Olivo plays a big part in the program, working with students in the class three days a week via video conferencing.

Olivo has stopped by summer musicals in the past after befriending local theater director Jim Tropp. And with shows across the country canceled because of the novel coronavirus, Olivo said she wanted to help kids in the Janesville area even more than usual.

When she heard about the idea for the virtual theater program, she volunteered to teach singing and acting lessons each week.

“There’s just something about that program,” she said. “The kids that gravitate toward that program, they’re really special.”

Olivo said she hopes students learn it takes a large group to make a performance great—something she believes is relatable to life. The ability to share that with students has been special, she said.

“I think theater is sort of a really good training ground to being a good community member because it takes so many people working on different projects but toward one similar goal,” she said.

Declan Boran-Ragotzy teaches the other sections of the class. He said while things might look different compared to the traditional summer musical program, the class has still offered students a chance to work on their burgeoning theater careers.

“I just think it’s a great opportunity for kids to take their learning from different individuals,” he said. “It’s a great way to keep them connected through this crazy time.”

Parker High School junior Faith Green joined the class after the summer musical was canceled. Though she was looking forward to performing in the show, she said the virtual theater program has provided a great experience, as well.

“Since the show got canceled, it was a chance for me to still be involved in something like that even though we couldn’t be together,” she said. “It was a way for me to work on my skills over a computer and improve.”

Hammes agreed, saying her favorite part of the class so far is getting to learn from Olivo. She called the class a “perfect opportunity” to continue to grow as a performer while receiving quality instruction from a professional.

Boran-Ragotzy said there is hope to complete some version of a final performance before the class ends, but a final decision on that idea has not yet been made.

And while the program might be a bit different than many students imagined, at least one of their teachers has seen a lot of potential and growth despite a different educational format.

“I think that they’re doing well given the state of the world,” Olivo said. “These kids have been dealing with a lot, but they keep showing up and doing the work. I think this is working on so many different levels.”