Educational Honors

by Lisa Mulcahy
in Feature
The 2016 SD High School Theatre Honors winners!
The 2016 SD High School Theatre Honors winners!

Our annual citations recognize the best high school drama programs in the country

Blazing originality. A commitment to teaching the touchstones of both technical and creative skill. Imparting self-assurance into each student’s performance, both in class and onstage. These are the peerless qualities this year’s winners of Stage Directions High School Theatre Honors Program share, through the work of the dedicated instructors who guide their students through innovative dramatic training. We congratulate each of them on their success—now and in the future! 

Olathe South High School’s production of Peter Pan took place entirely in the Darling’s nursery, giving a new twist to the classic.
Olathe South High School’s production of Peter Pan took place entirely in the Darling’s nursery, giving a new twist to the classic.

MIDWEST
Olathe South High School

Olathe, Kansas 

Olathe’s students participated in the National Shakespeare Competition at Lincoln Center, and have staged top-notch productions of Twelfth Night, West Side Story, and The Glass Menagerie, among other challenging classics. The encouragement of student curiosity is the element that sets Olathe’s sterling program apart, and makes for great theatrical accomplishments. “I’m always asking, ‘Why?’” says David Tate Hastings, the school’s drama teacher. “Why are we doing this particular play? My overarching goal, really, is to develop individual voices within my students. Through experiences we have in the classroom, through going to the text of a play we’re doing, my students are always being asked, ‘What do you hear in this material? What’s the impression you have of this scene?’ My students come up with incredible ideas within these kinds of dramatic activities and moments—so many different colors and patterns. Every kid wants to be good—and they are, each in his or her own way!” 

Hastings is happiest when his students find their own unique ways through a dramatic challenge. “We did a production of the play Thirteen that I kind of wasn’t sure about at first,” Hastings recalls. “My students were older than the characters in the play, and I was trying to get them to buy into the concept, but it was hard to get them to completely relate to the piece. We were brainstorming ideas on how to get them to engage with the show, and one student just said, ‘How about if the set was a huge crossword puzzle?’, based on his perception of the material. That resonated with our group. Our tech students started working on this idea, and pretty soon we had a giant ‘word find’ as our backdrop; a student doing lighting came up with the idea to light individual words up on the set as they related to the plot throughout the show. This brought so much emotion, in terms of the show’s message, to everyone—our cast and crew, and the audience, too! People kept telling me, ‘This show has heart’—and that’s because once we found the key, our work as a group became so heartfelt.”

Students at Rush-Henrietta High School help build the set for their fall production.
Students at Rush-Henrietta High School help build the set for their fall production.

NORTHEAST 
Rush-Henrietta Senior High School

Henrietta, New York 

Rush Henrietta’s Spotlight Theatre Company has been infusing students with the love of drama for 30 years this season, and it’s a very specific goal of teaching overall practical technique that sets this program apart. Throughout the school’s lauded production history to this year, when students will present Twelve Angry Jurors, Les Misérables in Concert, and The Addams Family, students have been immersed in every aspect of theatrical work imaginable. “I believe a high school theatre program should provide students with a well-rounded experience and a full appreciation of the artistic and technical elements involved in a production,” says Laura M. Reed, program director. “We provide opportunities for students to direct, stage manage, sound edit, design lighting, costuming and props—as well as regularly build in smaller leadership experiences like choosing and leading rehearsal warm-up games. By giving students real decision-making power, combined with a strong skill set and adviser mentoring, they have the chance to create and innovate for a production that will be seen by hundreds of audience members—a great motivator and source of pride.” 

The program is also noted for tackling edgy uncharted territory as far as material is concerned, to its students’ great benefit. “We were only the third school in the country to perform the play adaptation of Jay Asher’s bestselling novel Thirteen Reasons Why, the story of Hannah Baker, a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves behind tape recordings for each of the people had a role in the choice she tragically made,” Reed recalls. “The play’s author, Jay Asher, was in contact with us throughout the production, calling to encourage and thank the students, adding to the sense of excitement and huge responsibility they had in being one of the first to bring Hannah’s story to life. Many in the audience were brought to tears, and told me it was one of most affecting shows they had ever attended—a true testament to the cast and crew’s phenomenal group effort!”

The cast sings “Full Disclosure” in Garfield High School’s production of The Addams Family.
The cast sings “Full Disclosure” in Garfield High School’s production of The Addams Family.

NORTHWEST
Garfield High School

Seattle, Washington

At Garfield, student actors and technicians quickly become accustomed to the hard work real dramatic study entails—and they mature as both artists and people because of it. The program has spawned acclaimed productions of Fuddy Meers, The Miss Firecracker Contest and Dramatic P.A.W.S., an intense student-written and directed assortment of one acts, scenes, skits and monologues—completed in just five days, from script to show. “I treat teaching my high school students just the same as if we were in a conservatory setting,” says theatre department head Stewart Hawk. “I’m interested in helping kids build a repertoire of key skills, to help them train to be productive if they want to go on to study or work in the theatre, or use those skills for other kinds of study or work.” 

This approach means that Hawk will never shy away from controversial material when it can inform his students’ outlooks, both from a dramatic and humanistic standpoint. “Two years ago, we did the full version of Rent,” says Hawk. “I didn’t want it watered down. I felt the show still had such a resonant message today, as much as it did when it premiered in the ‘90s, especially in our community—homelessness, AIDS, these things are happening around us, around my students, so this story still needs to be told. None of my students were born in 1996 when the show began on Broadway, so I brought in educators to help them understand the AIDS crisis historically, to make them aware of the lives of those living in the East Village back then. Each cast member really focused on back stories for their characters, creating individual stories, and this helped build an amazing richness that made the show extremely successful.” 

Hawk also creates an environment of strong individual expression in his classroom. “We’ll work very similarly to the way Anna Deavere Smith creates her performance pieces—my students will create character based on personal interviews with real-life people, and research real-life events to build a piece,” Hawk elaborates. “We’ve done work on Roe vs. Wade and the Rodney King verdict, for example. This teaches my students the importance of research, of getting out there and talking to people and discovering other perspectives.”

For the Dorman High School production of Fools, Pamela Broome pushed her students to learn Russian accents. “And they nailed it,” she says.
For the Dorman High School production of Fools, Pamela Broome pushed her students to learn Russian accents. “And they nailed it,” she says.

SOUTHEAST
Dorman High School

Roebuck, South Carolina 

Dorman High School’s all-encompassing educational thrust includes classroom study of every conceivable aspect of theatrical training: script analysis, pantomime, improvisation, memorization, voice and diction, and technical work. This strong emphasis on preparation affords Dorman’s student actors the chops to tackle tough productions like The BFG and Harvey like the budding professionals they are. “My philosophy is that my students should experience everything, not just acting work. Technical theatre—like costume design, bringing in music for shows, and building sets—is also part of their education,” says theatre instructor Pamela Broome. “I know what my students are capable of, and I want to present them with new challenges every chance I get—they really learn through the fruits of their labor.”

Broome is keenly aware of the impact good theatrical prep can have on her students’ overall potential as well. “Every time my students learn a new skill, as actors, designers or technicians, I feel that this skill can be an asset to them that they’ll use later in life—maybe, for example, they can use this skill if they want to study theatre in college,” Broome adds. 

Among the program’s accolades, Dorman’s students won high honors at the South Carolina Speech and Theatre Association’s State High School Festival, an achievement Broome treasures. Equally impressive to Broome: the way her students stepped up to help her realize a personal achievement of her own. “I was doing a project with my students, a production of The Curious Savage, in conjunction with my master’s degree thesis in directing, and I was so stressed out about it,” Broome recalls. “I thought I was being so hard on my poor kids—but they wanted to help me so much, and they did. They bent over backward working so hard on the show, infusing the show with a positive message—I never felt so proud of them! They knew their work would mean the world to me, and our successful collaboration was so special, I’ll never forget it.”

Chaffey High School’s production of In the Heights.
Chaffey High School’s production of In the Heights.

SOUTHWEST
Chaffey High School

Ontario, California

Chaffey High School does theatre in a big, all-encompassing way—and its students dive in head-first. Over 265,000 audience members have seen Chaffey’s productions since 1997—its auditorium is the largest performing arts space in San Bernadino County, and the school’s per-show production budget runs from $40,000 to $62,000. Not to mention the fact that the school’s productions have a huge local fan base—the city’s mayor even takes roles in some productions. Still, students aren’t saddled with any pressure. “We always say, ‘Be the best that you can be—you don’t have to please anyone but yourself,’’ says director of drama David Masterson. “We don’t get involved in competitions between schools on the festival level—we believe competition shouldn’t be outward toward other students, but that a student thespian’s focus should only be on improving his or herself.” 

Chaffey has taken on large-scale, multi-faceted material ranging from In the Heights to Big River to Monty Python’s Spamalot. “We were especially delighted to receive permission from Roald Dahl’s estate to perform a new script of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Masterson says. “Our entire community supported the show—I still remember the ‘Oooooh!’ that came from the audience as the curtain pulled back to reveal our chocolate factory. Plus, the concession stand ended up selling 5,000 Wonka candy bars—I’d say it was a success!” Working at such a high-impact level in high school has inspired many Chaffey alumni to enter the industry post-graduation—one former student has been Madonna’s lighting designer for her stage touring; another former student will be dancing at the Super Bowl with Lady Gaga this winter. “These alumni very generously come back to talk to our current students, offering them career advice—a great way to pay it forward,” says Masterson. “In the end, it all comes down to the fact that my students are raw clay—if I give them these unique experiences, they’ll not only find creative joy, they’ll be inspired to do great things in the future.”