COVID stories: New play to feature pandemic

Liz Beavers
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Vana Nespor

PETERSBURG - Over 35 years after penning the historical musical “McNeill’s Rangers,” author Vana Nespor is once again digging into history to create a play based on local events.

This time, however, she is working with recent history - very recent.

Nespor has been commissioned by the Landes Arts Center in Petersburg to write and direct a musical titled “These Months of Our Lives,” based upon real stories about local people’s experience with the pandemic.

According to Nespor, the play focuses on local experiences during each of the months of the pandemic, March 2020 through March 2021. The Landes Arts Center is therefore actively seeking stories about that period and actors, singers, and crew from Mineral County as well as Grant, Hardy, Hampshire, and Pendleton.

Mineral County residents interested in submitting a story or trying out for the play are asked to email Nespor at thesedaysofourlives@gmail.com.

"We need all the help we can get!" she says.

And just like the changes that came with the pandemic, preparation for this show will be very different from how Nespor or any other director was accustomed to presenting a live show.

Rehearsals and casting for the show will be in person on May 25-26 at 6 p.m. in Petersburg at the Landes Arts Center. Casting, rehearsals, and crew meetings will continue beginning June 1, however, using Zoom.

Participants will be asked to attend in-person rehearsals only two weeks before the show opens on Oct. 8, 9, and 10. This makes it possible for families and individuals from further away to participate.

In addition to presenting the show in Petersburg, the Arts Center hopes to tour the musical starting in Keyser and is looking for a free or low-cost performance space.

According to Phyllis Cole, president of the Landes Arts Center, the play should be an excellent new beginning for the facility.

“Like many performance venues, the Landes Arts Center in Petersburg has been shuttered for more than a year. It needed a kickstart; something that would invigorate the community,” she said.

In addition, Cole longed for something to bring people together after the terrible isolation and loss of the pandemic.

 She reached out to her old friend Dr. Vana Nespor, who had just retired from Bay Path University in Massachusetts. Nespor immediately suggested creating a musical theater production based on local stories of the past year, the tragic and the funny, and drawing in as many people as possible from across the five counties of Hampshire, Mineral, Pendleton, Hardy, and Grant.

Cole responded, “It’s perfect. Mountains, floods, wars, and pandemics can’t defeat us, and we won’t let them harden our hearts or keep us apart.”

Nespor says that many of the stories she has received so far are tragic, but others are humorous, which fits perfectly with her idea of what musicals should be. She points out that this uniquely American art form gives people a safe way to process the impact of trauma and loss. She cites “Annie,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom,” and “McNeill's Rangers” as examples.

 “All of these shows draw on tragic circumstances, yet each offers hope,” she said.

 Nespor describes her desire to give back to the area by creating such a show: “These people, this place, changed my life forever," she insists.

Nespor came to Keyser in the summer of 1981 and directed several shows for Apply Alley Players, including “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Fantastiks,” and “The Apple Tree,” before writing and directing “McNeill’s Rangers” in 1984 with the late Dr. John Hawkins of Potomac State College, who composed, orchestrated, and performed the entire score based on Civil War tunes.

Nespor then moved to Petersburg as director of the South Branch Valley Center of Shepherd University, then Shepherd College. She helped dozens of men and women finish their college degrees and directed more than 20 musicals and dramas for the community and high school.