“The other shows better be prepared to be dominated,” Gary High School Senior Taylor Alexander said during theater practice earlier this month.
Gary High School production students will be competing against each other in three plays during Gary Playfest, which runs Thursday through Saturday this week at the Esquire Theater in Carthage.
Gary theater teacher Michael Powell decided to turn their annual festival into a competition this year to give new production students a taste of how One-Act season will go this spring. Last year he had six seniors in class, so this year the production class has eight returning students with seven new ones.
“Those newbies have never been to a One Act Play contest,” Powell said. “They don’t understand the pressure; they don’t understand the process, and so I thought to try to get them caught up as much as possible, we would just have our own. So we divided the class into three small casts for these plays are that are very good plays and cut down to about 30 to 33 minutes each, and then they are self-directing them.... I can’t direct three plays at the same time, so they get one day a week with me; each play gets one day a week with me. Other than that, they are doing their own stuff.”
The students trusted to direct the less-experienced ones are Taylor Alexander and Miller Powell, who are directing “The Father,” Hailey Essery and Katie Thomas, who are directing “Wit,” and Katie Cameron and Brady Balfanz, who are directing “Rabbit Hole.”
Each play will get two runs before the competition Saturday night. Thursday night will see “The Father” and “Rabbit Hole,” beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday night will see “Wit” and “The Father,” beginning at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday afternoon will see “Rabbit Hole” and “Wit,” starting at 2 p.m. On Saturday night all three plays will run, beginning with an open house at 5:30 p.m. and ending with awards at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door. The Esquire Theater is located at 114 W. Sabine St. in Carthage.
Powell is bringing in three paid UIL judges to judge the contest Saturday night, and he invited other schools to come bring their own theater classes as well.
“I just put out ‘hey if you want to come watch.’ It might be good for their casts to come watch,” Powell said. “I said I’ll give away 100 free tickets, and I had 110 claimed in like three days or something.... they’ll be over 100 there, and then with our people probably be 100. So there should be like 200 people there Oct. 2, so it’ll feel like a contest. There will be some pressure.”
Powell worked hard to make sure each of the three casts were about equal.
“The weakest person in each show’s pretty weak, because they’re new and they’re learning, but each show has that... I worked pretty hard to make them as even as possible,” he said. “For example, if I didn’t think that the lead in a certain show was maybe as good as another show, I tried to make sure that that show itself was better. I tried to make it as absolutely even as possible, and I think it is. So now that it’s down to their work, and they all feel like they have a chance, and that’s what I wanted, was it to be down to their work ethic.”
He also selected plays with similar themes: they’re heart-wrenching dramas with humor.
“So they kind of start out with humor, and then as it goes you’re like ‘oh holy crap, this is really a sad circumstance,’” he said. “But it doesn’t make it less funny. I think they’re really true to life there. I told the kids that one of the places you laugh really hard at is funerals. I mean everyone’s going to laugh at a funeral because it’s an outlet, so you don’t have to do this, just because it’s a sad play.”
“Rabbit Hole” is a play about a couple struggling to keep their marriage together after the death of their 4-year-old son, Powell said. Senior Katie Cameron plays the mother.
“This role is actually very difficult because she’s a mother who has lost her child, and for me, I haven’t lost an actual child, obviously, but I kind of pull towards my grief of animals because I had a childhood pet who passed away a couple years ago...” she said. “I really enjoy challenging myself because it’s very emotional, and I usually don’t play emotional parts where I just have to pull to depths, and it’s been really challenging for me to get some of the parts, especially when she’s upset in the scene with Jason. I mean this is the first time meeting the person face to face alone who hit her son, and so it’s been difficult for me to grab onto those emotions and display them correctly, because usually I’m kind of a happy person, but I like the challenge of having to do that.”
The play has presented another new opportunity for Cameron as she takes on the role of lead and director.
“Powell’s been helping me, so it’s different because I’m not listening to him fully, and I’m having to train the freshmen that are in here,” she said. “There’s only two of us returning in this play, that’s me and Brady, and so there’s three other newbies that I’m trying to lead and tell them how to do it, and then they also have Powell that comes in every once in a while and tells them how to do it, and so it’s kind of like, it’s so different for me, like I’m trying to get used to it still, but it’s definitely exciting. Very exciting to be able to direct this play.”
“Wit” is Powell’s favorite show of all time, he said. It’s about a professor of John Dunne’s 17th century poetry, which talks about death not really existing because we’re going to live past death.
“The lead in ‘Wit,’ for 40 years, that’s been her career. She was like the top John Dunne scholar. Well now she has cancer, and she’s going to die,” Powell said. “So her tension is ‘for 40 years I’ve been saying that death doesn’t matter, and now I’m dying in a few weeks. Do I really believe what I spent my career teaching?’ And that’s her struggle. It’s really a beautiful show.”
Junior Katie Thomas plays that professor.
“It’s very interesting playing someone that was so confident and higher than everybody else, and then to play it as just this sick, struggling woman,” she said. “It’s very challenging honestly to go from contrasting so much in a character. But it’s been very fun.”
“The Father,” is a fairly-new play that was translated to English from French in the last year or two.
“It is about a man who has dementia, but he’s very smart,” Powell said. “He’s very witty, and in conversation he can win, and the verbal battles; he will outwit you, but he might not remember that you told him something, or he might not know where his watch is, but it’s very funny in the sense that, because he’s not just defeated, doesn’t know what anything’s going on, which makes it sadder. You can tell he’s really smart; you can tell he’s probably had a great career, and he’s wealthy, and yet when he can’t think of something, he will argue with the other person like it’s their fault. He’s got a great line in there where someone tells him something, and he says ‘I know you’ve told me a hundred times, you keep forgetting.’ And it tells the story to ultimately where he can’t do that anymore.
“What’s exciting about that play, and scary because it’s so different, is that you see the play from his perspective. So there are things that happen in the play, and you’re like ‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’ But it’s what he’s seeing.”
Senior Taylor Alexander plays the father’s daughter Anne, who struggles to take care of him during the play.
“She’s very stressed out all the time, because she wants to help her dad, but every single time she tries to there’s always something in the way; there’s always somebody in the way,” she said. “He just makes things so difficult for her, and she wants to be there for him, but at the same time he’s getting in the way of so many things in her life that she could be doing, but she can’t because she has to take care of him. And so throughout the whole entire play, he’s just saying ‘oh well, you’re always trying to take away things from me’ when she’s actually trying to help him do things. She’s trying to help but he’s pushing her away, so it’s kind of conflict between the two most of the time.”