Theater students offer juggling act

Performers: An unusually tight schedule at a Columbia high school has some actors tap dancing in a Broadway musical in the afternoon and delivering serious drama that night.

Howard Live

January 17, 2002|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What does an emotionally charged play about a murder trial jury have to do with an upbeat, splashy Broadway musical? Not much, unless you happen to be involved in both productions at once, as are some members of the River Hill High School drama department.

"This won't ever happen again," said Pam Land, the school's drama department director.

Preparations for the two productions - Twelve Angry Jurors and 42nd Street - overlap by several weeks, which is unusual for the department.

Land said that normally the school has a more manageable schedule - one "straight play" in the fall and one musical production in the spring. But this year, Land, in her 12th year as a drama teacher, wanted to squeeze in one more play. "This was the only time to do it," she said.

The tight timetable prompted Land to enlist the help of longtime friend Marla Blasko, who directs community theater in Baltimore and Howard counties.

For Blasko, guest director of Jurors, working entirely with teen-agers was a first - she usually directs adult casts or very young children in theater workshops. She acknowledges being pleasantly surprised by the teens' level of commitment. "It's a huge undertaking, especially for the students involved in both [productions]," Blasko said. "They have so much energy."

As the curtain rose last night on the first of four evening performances of Twelve Angry Jurors, rehearsals for this spring's musical were already well under way. For some, that has meant nothing less than a carefully orchestrated juggling act.

"I love acting. I love being busy," said David Mekelburg, 15, a sophomore who plays a "bleeding-heart liberal" in Jurors and is an understudy for one of the leading roles in 42nd Street.

"Busy" is an understatement. Land said rehearsals for each show typically last two to four hours, four or five days a week. 42nd Street practices after school; Jurors rehearsals have been in the evenings.

How does one shift gears from upbeat Broadway performer to angry juror?

"Generally, I have an hour between rehearsals, so the transition is pretty smooth," Mekelburg says.

Sophomore Caitlyn Glascock, 15, agrees. She is the student director for Jurors, and sings and tap dances in 42nd Street. "It's not that difficult. You have rehearsal and play that part while you're there. You just have to forget about what you just did" at the next rehearsal, she said.

Students are not the only ones balancing the demands of concurrent productions. "The whole organization of [the shows] is the biggest challenge," said Land, who is producer for Jurors and director of 42nd Street. Behind-the-scenes issues, such as acquiring the school's auditorium for rehearsals, coordinating practice schedules for the scores of people involved and countless other details, have kept Land on her toes. The term "time management" seems to be her mantra.

The shows are demanding in different ways, which helps Land balance the two. Jurors, a three-act play about the heated deliberations of a jury in a murder trial, is technically uncomplicated - it takes place in one room, with a modest set. The cast is relatively small - 12 students - compared with 42nd Street's 94. The challenge for Jurors is in the emotional demands of the script. For the musical, a classic Broadway extravaganza set in New York City in the 1930s, the complexities involve the showy costumes, choreography, music and scenery.

In a year of three productions - in November, students performed the play All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten - one might question Land's choice of the labor-intensive 42nd Street. But, she says she made her decision based on the talent of her students.

"We have a lot of really gifted tap dancers right now," said Land. "We felt like we needed to capitalize on this core of kids that had that skill." Delaying a project for a year or two can mean losing precious talent to graduation.

For one of those tap dancers, 15-year-old sophomore Katie Habib, the grandeur of 42nd Street is what aids her transition from jury forewoman to Broadway dancer. "It helps to have the musical energy all around," she said.

Blasko praises her cast members' ability to get into character for the intense roles in Jurors, even though some of them come to practice straight from 42nd Street. "When they come to rehearsal, they're really focused," she said. "But sometimes I have to tell them to stop tap dancing."

"Twelve Angry Jurors" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday at the River Hill High School auditorium. Seating is limited. Tickets and information: 410-313-7120. Performances of "42nd Street" are at 7:30 p.m. March 7, 8 and 9. A 2:30 p.m. performance is scheduled March 9. Tickets will go on sale Feb. 19 and can be purchased on all lunch shifts, from the front office or from a cast member.

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