Long-standing tradition of student-produced theater may be stronger than ever
LINDEN HILLS — There were drunken Vikings, moronic doctors, Spanish Inquisitors and a whole squad of uniformed bobbies on stage during the latest Unhinged Theater production but, luckily, no fire marshal.
Lucky, because Southwest High School’s black box theater was packed beyond capacity Jan. 9, halfway through a run of "My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels!"
Audience members were climbing over one another to reach their seats when director Henry Epp finally took the stage. The Southwest senior looked out at dozens of students crammed into metal folding chairs, shoulder-to-shoulder with parents, grandparents and siblings.
"It’s a kind of long show, but you’ll be laughing," Epp reassured them.
They were, too, from the moment the pit band burst onto stage blasting John Phillip Sousa’s "Liberty Bell" march — the instantly recognizable theme of "Monty Python’s Flying Circus."
The Pythons are perennially popular with teenagers (and adults, for that matter), so it was no wonder "Hovercraft" sold out several nights and had its run extended. It was just one of six shows this season from Unhinged Theater — ranging from the absurdist sketch comedy of "Hovercraft" to the documentary-style drama of "The Laramie Project" — produced entirely by students.
"We get everything organized, we build the sets, we act, we direct, [we do] lights — everything," Epp said.
Student-produced theater is a tradition at Southwest that stretches back at least 20 years, but may be stronger today than ever.
Chris Fisher, an English teacher and the theater’s guiding light, said three ingredients made Unhinged possible: a Southwest faculty well-versed in the arts, supportive administrators and, most important, ambitious students.
Students like Epp, who planned his directorial debut almost since he first acted in Unhinged as a freshman. He spent most of last summer watching old "Flying Circus" episodes before sitting down to adapt a script with Assistant Director Sam Tank, a junior.
Actors in the latest Unhinged production said taking on all the responsibility of a production increases both the risks and the
"When we fail, we all fail together," said junior Matthew Grathwol, an actor in the play.
Judging from the line forming an hour before the final performance, however, this was no failure.
Fisher said the antics of "Hovercraft" weren’t too different from the acting he did years ago, before joining the Southwest faculty in 1985. But it’s "a young man’s game," he admitted.
"My work might have been smoother, but I wouldn’t have been funnier," Fisher said.
When Fisher arrived at Southwest, he joined another English teacher with a theater background: John Fenn, a playwright and former production manager for the Guthrie Theater now retired from secondary teaching. They immediately got involved in student theater, leading to the first student-produced Southwest show in 1987.
By the time Elyzabeth Gorman took Fisher’s drama class in the fall of 1996, his students were both writing and producing their own plays. But Gorman, along with three of her classmates, brought the student work "to a new level," Fisher said.
"I called them the Young Lions," he said. "… They did a huge number of works."
Gorman said it was her outrage over the Bosnian conflict — and her peers’ seeming ignorance — that led her as a sophomore to propose a production of "Trojan Women," Euripides’ tragedy set during the Trojan War.
"It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that I realized [Fisher] was thinking of having me direct it," she said. That conversation had a profound impact on Gorman, now a director and stage manager working in New York City.
A few months later, Fisher’s "Young Lions" produced "The Star Spangled Girl," a Neil Simon comedy, and kept going from there.
By Gorman’s senior year, their production of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" was filling 300 seats in the Southwest auditorium. Just a few years earlier, actors might outnumber audience members at performances of the school musical, she said.
"It was shocking to look in the audience," she remembered. "We suddenly had all this interest from the school."
It was an interest that crossed social lines. When Gorman looked at the cast and the audience, she didn’t see just the typical theater crowd, but also the jocks, the arty kids, the musicians — students from all of the traditional high school cliques.
"We wouldn’t have been communicating [with one another] if it wasn’t for theatre," she said.
Southwest Principal Bill Smith said theater plays that same role at Southwest today. It has a unique ability to build bridges across the social landscape of a high school.
"We do think, in the course of the year, a whole lot of kids have positive school experiences that they might not have without Unhinged," Smith said.
By the time "Hovercraft" closed, some of its actors were already looking forward to "South Pacific," the annual school musical and the year’s major production.
Noah Madoff, a sophomore, said acting in Unhinged was a very different experience than acting in the faculty-produced annual musical. While young actors have a lot to learn from more experienced veterans, there is something to be said for figuring things out yourself, Madoff said.
"For me, [Unhinged] is one of the best forms of education in the art form," Madoff said.
Many said they felt a greater sense of accomplishment after an Unhinged production.
Jonah Sargent, a senior, recalled a moment during the student production of "The Night of the Iguana" by Tennessee Williams.
"It rained in the theater," Sargent said, recalling an effect rigged up the student stage crew. "When you let kids go at it, it’s really incredible how much you can do."