As two students started to perform in the Zootown Cabaret on the steps of the Prescott House on October 3rd, they were interrupted. Teresa Merriman’s and Ellie Caterisano’s singing hesitated as piercing feedback echoed from the loudspeakers. Merriman gestured to Caterisano and they descended from the makeshift stage on the front porch of the house to put distance between microphones on stage. The pair laughed along with the audience camped out on the front lawn. They restarted their performance in the Break From the Line Zootown Cabaret showcase of female and minority composers.

“We found music from composers that we weren’t very familiar with or familiar with at all,” Dr. David Cody said. Cody founded the cabaret and is the coordinator of musical theater in the School of Music at UM.

Composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stevie Wonder were featured alongside lesser-known composers, like Joy Son and Joey Contreras. The event was built to feature the excellence of the work of underrepresented minority and female composers.

“With everything that’s happening in the world, we wanted to give them some recognition,” Merriman said.

With rising COVID-19 cases on campus, administration from within the department and across campus decided that all performances throughout the rest of the year will be done with masks.The performers were equipped with special resonance face masks that allow them to breathe and sing properly, but Merriman said there’s a technical challenge with these masks. The challenge comes in the form of keeping the microphones up to a volume so that singing won’t be muffled without feedback.

The audience was also required to wear masks, and flags were set at 9-foot intervals across the lawn for social distancing, although most groups were scattered about. Some sat in lawn chairs they brought and some sat in the grass. But the informal nature of the performance, with the “stage” being a front porch, is part of the charm of cabaret, Dr. Cody said.

“All our students would agree it’s better than being remote,” Dr. Cody said.

This is the 10th year of the Zootown Cabaret ensemble within the UM’s School of Music, and their first live performance of the academic year. The ensemble has one more performance scheduled to take place at the Zootown Arts Community Center on Nov. 19. The performers have continued in-person rehearsals in an outdoor pavilion on campus and are already used to the wearing of face masks.