How One Military Family Made the Best of COVID-19 Cancelations With the Help of Elsa and the USO

By Marcie Smith West

Andrea Dawson knows she is a lucky mom.

Ben Dawson reunites with his son Spencer after a deployment. | Photo credit Dawson Family

Not only do her teenagers Emma and Spencer, enjoy exploring Okinawa, Japan, but they will also happily pose for photos. Unlike other children who might resist the spotlight, hers are eager to snap pictures and then share their adventures with their grandparents, older brothers and entire family back home in the United States via social media.

As a Marine family, sharing these photos on social media is one of the best ways to stay connected with loved ones at home, and luckily Dawson never has never had to beg her kids to pose, they simply run to the front of a camera. This love of taking center-stage not only inspired an interest in theater, but also provided the Dawson children with an incredible opportunity to make the best of COVID-19 cancelations, thanks to the USO.

Taking the Stage, One Duty Station at a Time

Emma, Dawson’s 18-year-old daughter, didn’t know exactly how she got involved in her first theater production, but once she started, she knew that she had immediately found a calling. The thriving theater community in Okinawa allowed her to continue her passion that began in San Clemente, California, which was her family’s previous duty station before her father was stationed in Japan. Emma spent the past four years jumping at all production opportunities available at her middle school and high school.

In February 2020, Emma auditioned for her last high school production with the Pacific Okinawa Players Theater Group, which is mainly for adults, but began producing children’s shows in the last decade. The rigorous rehearsal schedule didn’t deter 120 kids from auditioning for the available 30 roles in the play “Frozen Jr.,” and Emma was shocked when she learned she had been cast as Elsa, the leading role.

Both Emma and Spencer Dawson have gotten involved with local theater while stationed with their family on Okinawa, Japan. | Photo credit Dawson Family

“I was extremely honored. There were so many talented people at the audition,” Emma said. “I never thought I would have a chance at the role.”

Emma’s brother Spencer, who is sixteen years-old, didn’t have much of a choice at first when it came to working on the play. After all, their mother had already volunteered for the production and would be spending plenty of time at the theater. So, if Spencer had to tag along to the rehearsals, he might as well be part of the show.

Once the roles were finalized, the cast began rehearsing; however, only a few weeks in, COVID-19 health protection measures went into effect on Okinawa, canceling rehearsal. Emma was disappointed they couldn’t continue the production of the play but understood the importance of the safety measures.

“I couldn’t get mad because it is more important for people to be safe than for us to do the production,” she said.

Making the Best of a Canceled Play with Idina Menzel and the USO

It’s been eight months since production on “Frozen Jr.” was postponed. Christine Smith, the Pacific Okinawa Players Director, hopes they will still be able to run the show in the future with as many of the original cast members as possible. They even offered to let Emma keep her role, even though she had graduated out of the program in the spring. While Emma was touched they made the offer, she didn’t want to take the chance away from her understudy, who had already begun preparing to step into the role.

However, Emma and Spencer did get the chance to step back onto the stage – so to speak – by participating in The USO’s MVP Holiday Special.

Emma may not be performing in “Frozen Jr.” as Elsa, but she got to introduce the real Elsa – Tony-Award winner and Broadway and film star Idina Menzel – as part of the upcoming, virtual online program. As theater kids, Spencer and Emma were already fans of Idina Menzel’s work on Broadway and in films, but they never imagined they would get a chance to introduce her on a show streamed worldwide.

“We love Idina Menzel in our house” Emma said as she beamed with excitement.

Emma and Spencer’s involvement in the play wasn’t the only thing affected by COVID-19. The Dawson family had originally hoped to spend the holidays exploring Tokyo before their father, Ben Dawson, retired from the Marine Corps. They had saved and planned for this trip well before COVID-19 hit the Pacific region, but the safety measures put into place due to the pandemic changed everything

Covid-19 canceled many of the Dawson’s family holiday plans, but they made the best of it by exploring their home of Okinawa. | Photo credit Dawson Family

“We were disappointed the trip was canceled because it is hard for Ben to get time off.“ Dawson said. “We decided to use the vacation time to find every allowable opportunity to explore Okinawa.”

They kicked off their vacation at home by recording their scene in the USO MVP Holiday Special broadcast. The special, which was broadcast on the USO’s Facebook and YouTube platforms on Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. EST, features virtual visits with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end & Super Bowl Champion Rob Gronkowski, NFL Hall of Famer & Super Bowl Champion Terry Bradshaw, UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie, and other professional athletes engaging with service members around the world along with special appearances by Kristen Bell, Norman Reedus, Al Roker, Garth Brooks and Gal Gadot.

Tony Award-winning star of stage and film Idina Menzel headlined the virtual special with a performance featuring holiday and iconic Broadway tunes.

“The kids were excited to not only represent someone they idolize, Idina Menzel, but it [also] gave them a chance to give back to an organization that has been a constant during our 20 years with the Marines,” Dawson said.

“The USO was with my husband when he was in Iraq, with every PCS move and any time we have had to travel,” she said. “It is really comforting to know that no matter where we are, the USO is always there to support our family.”

Dawson is confident that Emma and Spencer didn’t realize that the broadcast would be worldwide when they said yes.

“I think they looked at it as an opportunity to give back. It also didn’t hurt that they had a chance to be in front of a camera.”

After a year of unexpected change and missed opportunities, the Dawson children had a chance to once again be center-stage and – thanks to the USO – help spread a little holiday cheer in the process.

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