Setting the stage for success

Selection: Choosing the right play can prove the hardest part of producing a show at the high school level.

April 10, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When drama teacher Cate Barry announced that the spring musical at Long Reach High School was going to be Starmites, many students reacted with a resounding "Huh?"

But several weeks into rehearsing the show - in which a comic-book-loving girl gets pulled into an alternate universe to help save the "guardian angels of Innerspace" from the forces of evil - the young actors are praising their leader's creative selection.

"It's great that Ms. Barry is broadening our horizons," said Samantha Duvall, a Long Reach senior. "... I think it helps our acting because we don't have anything to copy from."

In June, Duvall and some of her classmates will take on a project with more potential for controversy: Bang Bang, You're Dead, a play about school violence.

Throughout Howard County, teachers are challenged to choose musical and nonmusical plays for their students that are appealing, appropriate and attuned to the talent pool at their schools.

Some choose perennial favorites, such as The Music Man, Hello, Dolly!, Grease and other musicals, or dramas such as Our Town and Death of a Salesman. Others seek more obscure fare, hoping it will excite student actors without upsetting community sensibilities.

Selecting plays "is one of the hardest things about the whole process," said Tom Sankey, a math teacher and drama director at Mount Hebron High School. "It has to be a piece of work that is worthwhile for the students to spend three months of my life and their life on," he said.

For many directors, the first step is to look at the students available to fill key roles.

"You have to find a play that matches the students you have instead of finding actors to match a show," said Julian Lazarus, drama teacher at Hammond High School. The band, dance and stagecraft talent also need to be compatible.

Directors have to be aware of the audience as well, particularly when ticket sales will be an important part of the show budget.

Lazarus, in his second year at Hammond, found audiences were not as receptive as he had hoped to a performance of the contemporary play Museum, which he said is fairly popular as a college production.

This year, Hammond students did You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in part to draw more community members to the performance. Lazarus said the four to six smaller shows his students put on each year are better venues for trying more unusual fare.

Wendy Humphries, in her first year teaching drama at Centennial High School, said she looks at "what the kids are good for, who I have ... who I have coming up in the ranks that I have to groom."

She chose the more obscure Once on This Island, which originally used an all-black cast and has a nontraditional way of telling the story through song.

She said it was powerful and gave a lot of students opportunities for leads. And, as she replaces a longtime drama director, she said she wants to start a new era with her style.

"A lot of people didn't know how to take it," she said, but she believes the audience warmed to the show quickly.

The school system offers a list of guidelines for choosing plays, but little in the way of suggestions, said Chris Paulis, who oversees drama departments in his role as coordinator of secondary language arts for county schools.

Teachers need to ensure a show is the right difficulty for the age level of students, has opportunities for a number of students to get involved and has appropriate themes, he said.

Budget plays a role

Practical concerns, such as the cost of royalties, are factors. Charlie Brown cost $2,000 before the first rehearsal, Lazarus said. Groups need to pay for costumes, sets, lights and other technical items. Some schools have large budgets, state-of-the-art facilities and full-sized shops for building sets, while others work with less.

Some popular shows now on Broadway are not available to community groups. But, Humphries said, a number of works do have student versions that minimize potentially objectionable language and behavior.

Play choices have to be approved by school principals, who can call on Paulis if they want more input. But disagreements are few, Paulis said, because directors tend to be familiar with the needs of the school and community.

Among the most difficult times Barry and her students had getting a play approved was with Bang Bang, You're Dead, which follows a young man who shoots several classmates and then is haunted by the students and his feelings.

Barry was moved by a television version of the play. She took a tape to school to show students in her drama class.

"The students looked at it and said, `Wow, this is something we want to do,'" Barry said.

Barry and her students made presentations to the school's assistant principal and principal, to Paulis and to representatives of the school board to get the green light.

`Make people think'

"I think it will make people think," said Brittainy North, 17. She is assistant director of Starmites at Long Reach High School and will have a role in Bang, Bang.

North would like to see more unusual pieces, such as last year's George M!, Bang Bang, and Starmites, which will run May 1-3.

"People haven't seen them overdone," she said.

Glenelg High School's Sue Miller is careful not to do the same plays as her predecessor, and for the school's two musicals and one drama each year, she says she finds good material in popular shows.

"I like [students] to learn about the classics of Broadway theater," said Miller, who has directed Anything Goes, Bye Bye Birdie, Lost in Yonkers and others. "You think about the kind of community you are in, what they would enjoy as well."

Sankey, who chose A Few Good Men and West Side Story this year, said the school play might be the first experience audience members - kids and adults - have with the theater, so they should have the chance to see popular material.

Most of all, "I want that experience to be positive," Sankey said. "Something kids can relate to as well as the audience."

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