It’s just after Halloween, and the Knights of the Round Table are on stage at Winnetonka High School. They will quest for Camelot, just as soon as their microphone checks are done for the musical “Spamalot.”
Richard Cox, who is playing Lancelot, starts a monologue but stops when the microphone fails to pick up his voice.
“I can’t handle this,” jokes Cox. “I’m a diva.”
Senior Kole Evans, who is playing the lead role of Arthur, picks up a handsaw off a riser as theater director Sheri Coffman urges everyone to get in place for a run-through of the first act.
“Excalibur!” says Evans, laughing to himself before placing it down and hopping on stage.
A few minutes later, Cox and Sir Robin (played by Yuki Sakata) are dancing their way through “Not Yet Dead,” the musical take on a well-known Monty Python bit.
“He is not dead yet,” sings Sakata.
Coffman stops the action to rework the choreography to accompany the song.
“But my mic is dead,” lilts Sakata softly.
The kids in the chorus, sitting in the first few rows of the auditorium, laugh along with him. The humor, even during two hours of rehearsal, comes easily. The knights breeze through satirical takes on politics and class. They’ve taken to material that has its origins in sketches conceived long before they were born, just as Coffman suspected they would.
“The students just fell in love with the comedy of Monty Python. Some had been introduced to Monty Python by their parents. Others were completely unfamiliar with Monty Python until we announced the show,” says Coffman. “Then, they watched ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ and a whole new generation fell in love.”
A few days earlier and nearly 26 miles south, a different set of knights is on a different stage, along with a 20-foot pink dragon.
Ben Glodowski’s head is somewhere in the middle of a 20-foot pink dragon’s belly.
“Is everybody in place?” asks Glodowski.
The Lee’s Summit North High School senior is perched on a stool, his muffled voice emerging from a hole below the dragon’s rib cage. He’s speaking to the four other puppeteers who will help him “fly” the dragon across the stage for the school’s production of “Shrek the Musical” this month.
The dragon’s head, attached to an elaborate harness fitted over fellow student Austin Johnson’s shoulders and waist, lurches forward. Bradley Covington, the tail operator, makes sure the dragon won’t get caught on any of the scenery as he holds a black rod, roughly the size and shape of a broom handle, attached to the tail.
“That is what I look like. That’s so cool,” says Taylor Williams, the singer and voice of the dragon, as Andrea Simon and Heidi Simpson, the puppeteers who each control one of the animal’s wings, pass by.
“Places, everybody. The dragon is heavy enough that we only want to do this a few times,” says theater director Shayne Daniel.
“Shrek” will be opening in eight days, and $700 of prosthetics — including the head of Shrek — haven’t yet arrived from a Canadian costuming company. But rehearsals must go on. A chorus of knights, trapped in the dragon’s dungeon, circles the puppet slowly while Donkey, Shrek’s sidekick, played by Ben Gruenbaum, stares up into the blinking eyes a few feet above Johnson’s head.
The dance number halts as a piece of baling wire comes lose in the neck of the puppet. Gruenbaum runs off stage to get a bit of wire, and Daniel bounds up from the seats to perform a bit of surgery. The guiding stick for the tail comes off in Covington’s hand a few bars later.
“You’re going to stay forever,” belts out Williams as part of the chorus of “Forever.”
Daniel is a lot more optimistic.
“Let’s run it once more and get you out of here for Halloween,” says Daniel.
Whereas high schools once performed plays from the stages of Broadway, now they’re looking to stage plays on the same level as Broadway.
“Schools are challenging themselves to bite off more material that is newer and seeing what they can make of it,” said Amy Reinert, director of outreach and education for Starlight Theatre.
Reinert manages the theater’s Blue Star Awards, which annually recognize the achievements of area productions and actors.
This year, 46 schools will put on 52 productions vying to be recognized at the awards ceremony next May. Reinert says she continues to be surprised by high school theater departments tackling technical challenges and complex material. Students will be manning dragon puppets, flying, rapping and spending more than an hour in the makeup chair each night, all in pursuit of the same thing: convincing the audience they’ve left behind a high school auditorium.
While traditional musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “Hello, Dolly” are still being performed, schools are increasingly turning toward productions based on Disney movies and animated characters. The most popular, “Shrek,” will grace at least four stages this fall.
“The Disney shows have universal appeal, and they’re the type of thing that young kids want to see,” said Reinert. “If you introduced the family-friendly effect, people will flock to it.”
That’s what David Young, the theater director for the past 21 years in the Liberty School District, was counting on when he decided to stage “Beauty and the Beast” in 2012.
The show sold out every one of the 964 seats during four performances in the four-year-old theater at Liberty North High School. And Young was able to use the surplus from ticket sales — a rare thing in a theater department — to fund the elaborate flying rigging and training required to fly actors for this school year’s production of “Peter Pan.”
Two stagehands help each actor in flight, one responsible for vertical movements and the other for horizontal.
“We have two people for each actor,” said Young. “Peter Pan and flying people — that’s a huge leap for us.”
The 20 crew members will be balancing a 45-person cast and set pieces for a ship that stretches 40 feet across the stage and 12 feet back.
“We move the set pieces in the light before we do them in the dark — the same way we’d rehearse choreography,” Young said. “We’re lucky that we have a fly system that’s allowed me to get more kids involved backstage. Most high schools don’t have the space that we do.”
Even when high schools have to make compromises based on budget or space, they’re finding ways to adapt a script’s technical requirements to their own facilities.
Vicki Hodges, Park Hill South High School’s drama teacher, has spent the past several weeks learning the difference between fog and mist as she works to stage “Phantom of the Opera.”
The fog, and a talented student lighting technician, will ideally hide the fact that Park Hill South doesn’t have a trapdoor on its stage.
And since costuming has taken up a large portion of the budget — the school is renting 153 costumes from a shop in New York City — Hodges has turned to antiquing to help cover her props and set needs. She discovered a phantom mask in a vintage shop, a cymbal-clapping monkey on the Internet, and Binswanger Glass is helping to build a custom door to mirror a reflection effect in the show.
“The great joy is to see the kids rise to the challenge,” said Hodges. “I hope we have staged it in such a way that it will be pretty seamless.”
At Lee Summit North, junior Brenner Moore heads a 20-person makeup crew tasked with bringing fairies and storybook characters to life for “Shrek.”
“Everyone is a lead role with their makeup,” said Moore. “You’re taking someone who is a normal person and turning them into an ogre or donkey. And if you do it right, the audience will be convinced.”
Students, too, are pushing their drama departments to tackle new and challenging material.
“Even though they may not have traveled to Broadway to see these shows, they’re more familiar with them because shows have exploded on social media,” said Reinert.
It was Facebook that let Brent Martin, the second-year theater director for Raytown South High School, know he was on to something when he picked “In the Heights” as this year’s fall production. The excitement from his students over the musical set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City was clear when school started in August.
“We had kids show up to auditions with the music memorized. If you can get kids to read a play over the summer, you’ve done something right,” said Martin.
The musical, which tells the story of the predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood, features rap, salsa and hip-hop dancing — three nontraditional elements that drew Martin to the material.
“Those who come in and hear the first number, if they’re expecting to hear ‘Oklahoma’ or ‘The Sound of Music,’ they’re in for a fun surprise,” said Martin.
Last year’s “Little Shop of Horrors” had 40 kids in the cast and crew. Martin expects that number to double this year.
Beyond engaging his students, he also wants to bring modern musicals to Raytown South in order to build his season ticket base. The theater program at Raytown South has no dedicated funding source, so it must rely on ticket sales and fundraisers to cover the cost of a production.
In an effort to secure funding, schools are also looking at new ways to integrate the classical musicals. At Harrisonville High School, the theater department is staging “The Sound of Music” this fall to coincide with the history department’s lessons on World War II.
Over the course of this school year, the theater will perform “M*A*S*H” in conjunction with classes covering the Korean War and “Face Forward” as the students learn about the Vietnam War.
History is being brought to life in a different way at Winnetonka High School. Only a few minutes after the final bell, the cast of “Spamalot,” is back in feudal Britain.
“We’re in for a treat today,” says Coffman. “Lancelot’s song is ready.”
Student director Grace Schmidt pushes play on a boombox and “His Name Is Lancelot” begins. Over the course of the disco-themed number, the hyper-masculine character of Lancelot is revealed to be gay.
“I love this scene,” says a chorus member as the four back-up dancers string together moves from “Saturday Night Fever” and “YMCA.”
The students yell “encore” and clap madly as the dance ensemble strikes it final pose.
“I miss one rehearsal, and this is what they come back with,” deadpans Coffman.
As the sky begins to darken outside, she pulls everyone together for a discussion about what’s left to be done — the main castle set piece needs to be decorated with faux stone, dance numbers are being blocked, and props are still being built.
“From this point on, it’s all hands on deck,” says Coffman.
A little over a week before the first show, the castle set piece at Lee’s Summit North is finished. And after nearly an hour of rehearsal, the dragon’s movement is coming together. More importantly, the puppet is finally holding together. Williams and Gruenbaum finish their duet with the dragon puppet blinking its shiny yellow eyes down at its four-legged love interest.
“If you guys are on your toes, you can be brilliant,” Daniel says. “Be brilliant.”
Daniel and his fellow theater directors have high expectations for the students in their company. And they recognize that by tackling difficult material or complex staging problems, the result is a production that can elevate the audience alongside the students involved.
“We don’t want to be satisfied with, ‘Oh gosh, my grandma liked this performance,’” says Park Hill South’s Vicki Hodges. “Not that there is anything wrong with Grandma liking it. We want to people come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know high schools could do this.’”