When the New Paltz High School Drama Club puts on its annual spring musical, packing the auditorium night after night isn’t an impossible dream. Typically, the cast is enormous, the chorus of backup singers and dancers even more so, the opportunities endless for students just getting their feet wet in backstage skills to build elaborate sets and make colorful costumes. Extended family occupy large blocks of seats to cheer on the young thespians, and plenty of folks in the broader community adore musicals enough to turn out for an evening of very affordable lightweight fun.
Autumn, when the Club’s members earn the Drama in its name, presents a bigger challenge for this hardworking group of stagestruck youth and their adult advisors, led by Nancy Owen and Karyn Morehouse. The number of roles available is smaller, the memorization of lines more demanding, the onus of conveying the chosen play’s emotional heft more serious, whether the content leans toward comedy or tragedy. Art direction tends to be more suggestive than illustrative. It’s a leaner operation, budgetwise; fewer students (and by extension, their families) get involved, and thus there’s usually less audience energy to tap, as manifested by the number of bodies in chairs.
The fall drama is thus the experience that separates the committed theater geeks among the school population from the ones who want to do a musical one time because it seems like a lark. Much responsibility falls on the shoulders of the actors, in particular, to bring everything they’ve got to nailing a character. They know that no big flashy production number is about to divert the audience’s attention from a missed cue or a flubbed line. But the emotional payoff can be correspondingly more rewarding, when the ensemble has done its collective homework and learned to work together well. And they know that the audience that does turn out, though predictably smaller than for a musical, and less easily persuaded to clap and cheer, is an audience ready to be guided through an exploration of human feelings and foibles via the power of their stagecraft.
For Owen, the challenge each school year begins with selecting a dramatic vehicle that draws on the strengths of the club’s current roster of members, which each September has to reinvent itself to compensate for the loss of the previous spring’s graduating seniors (27 of them moved on this past June). Younger students who have been gaining theatrical experience through minor roles and backstage work during their freshman and sophomore years now get their chances to step up their game. The ratio of interested male and female students changes from one year to the next: a variable that Owen needs to factor into her choices. Age-appropriate plays that engage as many students as are eager and ready to participate, but haven’t been done at NPHS before (or recently), are tougher to find than family-friendly musicals.
Some years, the Drama Club steps outside the box to cobble together a program of thematically linked playlets for the fall show, giving many talents their moment in the spotlight to shine without having to memorize a Hamlet-length part. 2018 is one of those years. The fall drama set to be performed at the high school auditorium November 8 through 10 is modestly titled An Evening of One-Acts, incorporating two short plays interwoven with a series of monologues. “They’re all about relationships: parental, friend, romantic,” Owen says, “but they’re very different.”
The centerpiece of Act One is Michael Scanlan’s two-character drama Fortress. According to a teaser from the play’s publisher, “Billy is nine when he finds out that he’s adopted. Feeling betrayed, Billy retreats into a world of his own, and builds his own Fortress of Solitude, modeling his life after the most famous orphan ever, Superman. His only ally, friend and sometime enemy is Kim, who watches Billy as they both grow up through high school, and who is frustrated by Billy’s determination to need no one but himself. We then hear Kim’s side of their relationship, see her struggle to make contact with Billy, even when Billy feels she too has betrayed him, and turns on her.”
Sounds like a wonderful opportunity for a couple of journeyman student actors to make a big impression. James Hyland will portray Billy and Keaton Hemminger plays Kim. Hemminger, a junior, has been a member of the ensemble in spring musicals in her first two years of high school, but says that this is her “first larger role.” She describes the character as “complex. Kim comes across as very angry; she’s trying to cover up her true feelings for a guy she likes. It creates many obstacles for her.” The set for Fortress is one-dimensional and painted all in black-and-white, like Billy’s costume. Only Kim is vividly dressed. “In Billy’s life, everything is dull,” Hemminger explains. “Kim brings color when she comes into his life. But they’re always missing each other.”
Failed attempts at communication are a dominant theme in Act Two’s focal play as well, Alan Haehnel’s To the Table. Using a variant of the “doubling” technique that is a staple of psychodrama, To the Table restages the same short, mundane conversation between a mother, Jan, and her teenage daughter, Leah, three times, each time adding a new layer of interpretation voiced by other actors. Christina Rust, a junior now acting in her fifth show at NPHS, describes her character Jan as, “an overbearing mother who loves her daughter a lot. But she’s very particular.” The two central characters are sitting at a table eating ice cream. “They’re doing a diet together. The mother is very concerned about eating disorders.”
Rust explains how the playlet is staged: “We start off having a conversation. Then we go off, they reset the props and we come back. Then our ‘thoughts’ come onstage. My Narrator stands behind me explaining my thought process. In the third part, the conversation is interrupted by flashbacks,” dramatized on the other half of the stage while the main actors freeze. According to Owen, “The ensemble consists of 12 psychiatrists, all dressed alike.”
What will be the payoff for a thoughtful audience? “I think it’ll be really emotional for the parents or parental figures,” Rust predicts, adding that teenagers will also relate well to the coming-of-age struggles of the younger characters in both plays. No singing, no dancing — just theater doing what theater does best: giving us insights into the human condition and our awkward, courageous efforts to get through to one another.
Come on out to New Paltz High School and show your support for these dedicated student thespians this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, November 8, 9 and 10. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10 general admission, $8 for students and seniors and are available at the door.