City Theatre’s Clare Drobot Talks Live Theater During a Pandemic and the Debut of F*ck7thGrade

F*CK 7th Grade
Jill Sobule performing F*ck 7th Grade Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

City Theatre has come to our rescue this winter and spring with a fantabulous new production in collaboration with Jill Sobule. In this world premiere concert film, award-winning singer-songwriter Jill Sobule – whose 1990’s hits include “Supermodel” and the original “I Kissed a Girl” – takes audiences through a Rock’n’Roll celebration of coming of age and coming out. 

The show was recorded in a very unique fashion in the fall in Hazelwood. It is available to stream through June 30, 2021 for $15/ticket and some Pay-What-You-Can options.

We’ve interviewed Jill several times over the year – I almost invited her to our pandemic wedding – so we went a slightly different direction and explored the creation of the production itself with Clare Drobot from City Theatre.

We also did watch the show which I’ll review separately. Because Jill and City Theatre have been part of our entire romance, it was touching. But also, Laura had been a local house concert last spring – it was her last live show before the pandemic shut that down.  Jill Sobule was the performer at that house concert. So it was like a touchstone to engage her in this way, a reminder that we survived 7th grade and we will survive this.

It is hard to write about anything right now without thinking about the pandemic. Everything is in that context.

Your name: Clare Drobot

Your pronouns: she/her

Your role with City Theatre: Associate Artistic Director

What was the original plan for this production? After two years of development F*ck7thGrade was supposed to receive its World Premiere as the sixth show of City’s 2019/2020 season.

Is this a play? A film? A concert? A hybrid? We’re calling this a world premiere concert film. It’s a product born out of artistic ingenuity—it’s certainly different than the full in-door production would have been, but the performance was crafted uniquely for the drive-in stage and built to ensure the artists safety while moving the show forward.

In 2018, Jill Sobule had this to say about early work on this show “Please tell your story. I feel like Freud might have got it wrong. It’s not those first few months or years, it’s 7th grade! That is what fucks your shit up for the rest of your life. And everyone agrees. That combo of puberty, tribal cliques, societal pressures etc. And especially for girls. There is pressure to be more compliant and boy crazy. That wasn’t for me.” Please tell your story. I feel like Freud might have got it wrong. It’s not those first few months or years, it’s 7th grade! That is what fucks your shit up for the rest of your life. And everyone agrees. That combo of puberty, tribal cliques, societal pressures etc.”

Jill Sobule
Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Is it possible students whose 7th grade was mostly online or punctuated by a pandemic escaped this Hellmouth? I’m convinced that middle school and the general tumult of coming of age exists for everyone no matter the environment. The exact grade level may change depending on the situation, but Jill is spot on in saying those years are part of shaping us. We’re only just now comprehending how the pandemic and digital life are changing our world and childhood in particular, but from my (somewhat limited) engagement on social media, I think it might be the exact opposite, that everything is magnified in our current environment and combined with a sense of isolation and uncertainty. I’m inspired by the next generation, but not sure I’d be prepared for 7th grade in 2021.

Are you partnering with youth LGBTQ organizations for this production? Yes—one of the positives of moving into the digital realm is that we’re able to have longer run and make performances even more accessible. We’re working on partnerships with a few LGBTQ+ organizations and looking forward to sharing those initiatives over the course of the streaming run.

When did you realize things would need to change for this production? Who was part of that conversation? By early April, we realized that the spring production would need to be postponed and by June the concept of the Drive-In really started to coalesce. Led by Marc Masterson and James McNeel, it really was a collective effort from the entire City staff figuring out how to build a venue from scratch, create the sound system, lights, stage, and projection system as well as organizing details around parking and the patron experiences. Working with the amazing design team (Rachel Hauk–Scenic, Cat Wilson–Lighting, Madison Hack–Costumes, and Zachary Beattie Brown—Sound), Director Lisa Peterson and Music Director Julie Wolf, we spent the summer figuring out how F7G could evolve to come to life on the drive-in stage.

How has City Theater generallly pivoted to digital delivery? Did you have to buy equipment? Change job descriptions? We launched into the digital world as soon as the pandemic started beginning with offering an archival stream of the production of Cry It Out by Molly Smither Metzler, which was forced to close early and then pivoting and turning Isaac Gomez’s PerkUp PerKup into an audio play. From there, we worked hard to stay in touch with audiences creating CT Live—a weekly streaming show and a number of other digital initiatives. The Drive-In offered us a unique chance to be ‘in person’ (or perhaps I should say in car?), but we knew the winter would return us to the digital realm. From the green screen creation of Shua Potter, Monteze Freeland, and Doug Levine’s Claws Out: A Holiday Drag Musical, to our Young Playwright’s Festival which is being recorded entirely remotely with design elements provided through OBS, I think digital theater will remain with us for some time to come.

The need to move into digital theatre has pushed all of us to wear a few new hats. It’s introducing non-linear editing processes to theater making (and we’re so lucky to have Mickey and Molly Miller of Human Habits to collaborate with on that front) and through that taught us new ways to engage and also challenge how we’re telling new stories. We’re definitely discovering the new equipment and software needed as well as how best to operate while the staff is working remotely.

I’ve read a few bits about keeping the actors safe, but what about the crew? We had an extensive safety plan developed with AHN that covered all angles from performers, to crew, front of house staff, and audiences. It was imperative that every human engaged with the show felt safe and protected.

What will live theater look like in a post-COVID era with a new normal rather than a return to the way things used to be? I’m learning more and more to not predict what post-pandemic theater will look like, but rather dream of the possibilities it affords. There are still a lot of unknowns, but I do know this. Theater will be back and while this era has presented significant challenges, it’s also truly an opportunity to grow back stronger—more flexible, innovative, and equitable.

410,000 Americans have died, a number expected to surge past half a million during the run of this show. How does theater help us grapple with that reality? It’s what art was made more. Theater is a reflection of the world around us and be it digitally or when we are able to return to in person performances, the medium has a unique ability to build community. What I love about F*ck7thGrade is that it’s so joyful. Jill and book writer Liza Birkenmeier have really captured that. It’s important to have moments that celebrate joy during this crisis. There’s a catharsis in making and experiencing art and I believe that is part of theater’s ability to heal.

Are you aware of any theater or art created during the 1920 Flu Pandemic? There are a number of examples of art created during pandemics throughout history, but I’m most struck by the fact that the roaring 20s followed end of WWI and the flu pandemic. I hope it’s a sign of good things to come.

I cannot imagine feeling comfortable or safe seated in a traditional audience for a long, long time. How does City continue to engage people like me? I hope there are a number of new ways we’ll be able to engage patrons with theater in the future ranging from continuing digital accessibility and content, to enhanced health and safety measures, and exploring outdoor and alternative venues. It’s paramount to us that all patrons feel safe.

Will City Theatre continue to offer digital experiences? Possibly. Stay tuned for more information coming soon!

What do you have lined up for the duration of 2021? In addition to F*ck7thGrade, we’re also in the midst of producing a digital version of City Theatre’s long running Young Playwrights Festival. This year featured exciting scripts by playwrights in middle school and high school and is directed by Associate Producer Monteze Freeland. We’re hard at working cooking up a few new digital initiatives that we’ll be rolling out in the coming months, so stay tuned!

Thank you, Clare.

Invest $15 in this show. You will laugh, cry, and revel in the experience.


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