Dramatic Choices

April 01, 2001 4 min read

The theme for high school theater productions this spring appears to be “reprise.” According to Dramatics, an educational theater magazine, millennial teachers are staging many of the same plays that were popular in the middle of the last century. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the quintessential play-that-won’t-go-away, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, are among the most produced plays in high schools lately. Even many of the newer musicals currently in heavy rotation—Godspell, Grease, and Little Shop of Horrors—are decades old.

Editor Donald Corathers explains, “It used to be that community theater was a great source of dramatic literature for educational theater.” But during the late 1960s and the ’70s, some options were eliminated as even Broadway shows began to offer more mature subject matter and off-color language. “Which is not to say high school students can’t handle the material,” Corathers says. “It’s just not politically possible for theater teachers to get away with producing an Angels in America,” the 1990 play about AIDS. There is a positive side to this trend, though: Shakespeare is getting his due, topping the high school charts for the past three years. And while Corathers would like to see some more adventurous choices, he notes, “The reason the same plays get done over and over is that they’re pretty darn good plays.”

We asked high school theater teachers across the country to explain their motivations for choosing their spring productions.

Branson, Missouri

Community: This resort town boasts 38 theaters (including venues in which Andy Williams and the Osmonds perform regularly) and more seats than Broadway.
Popularity of Theater: About 100 of the school’s 850 students participate in drama activities. Theater teacher Debbie Corbin’s problem: “There’s a lot of employment in this town vying for the same students I’m vying for.” She tries to stage ensemble pieces so inexperienced actors can get on stage right away. For example, in a fall production, Corbin added 20 students as extras.
Spring Productions:Harvey, a 1950 farce about a man’s relationship with an imaginary rabbit. Written by Mary Chase, it was later made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
Chosen Because: “It’s a classic,” and it differs from previous choices.
Last Time School Did Our Town: 1996. “I love that play!” Corbin cries. “It’s the apple pie of theater. Everyone can find someone to relate to in the play.”


New York, New York

Community: Located near New York’s Lincoln Center, LaGuardia is the public school that inspired the 1980 film Fame.
Popularity of Theater: About 300 students study in the school’s audition-entry drama program. Only seniors participate in the Spring Drama Festival, which draws agents and casting directors; lower-level drama students appear in workshop productions all year. The school also stages a musical each fall featuring kids from all of LaGuardia’s programs.
Spring Productions: This year’s festival features The Rimers of Eldritch (a 1965 mystery by Lanford Wilson), As You Like It (transported to the 1960s), and the comedy You Can’t Take It With You.
Chosen Because: “We run the department like a professional repertory theater company,” says drama chair Linda Masson-Kingsley. “I tend to choose pieces we haven’t done before or at least make the lineup varied.” She also looks for ensemble pieces.
Last Time School Did Our Town: “We’ve never done Our Town. I don’t see it as a high school play,” Masson-Kingsley says. The piece deals with mature themes, but high schools often play up the laughs or push for applause- generating melodrama, she explains. “That’s not what we’re about at all. We’re about creating truth on stage.”

Floyds Knobs, Indiana

Community: A small town across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.
Popularity of Theater: The school of 2,200 has one of the most active performing arts programs in Indiana; 250 to 400 students participate in classes and shows.
Spring Productions:Once on This Island, a 1990 musical; The Manhattan Radio Hour, a radio show; and Fools, a Neil Simon comedy.
Chosen Because: “Every year, I try to select a theme,” says Chris Bundy, director of theater arts. “Next year will be the year of the unusual”—inspired by such shows as Stomp. “This year’s theme is touring shows.” The school is taking Once on This Island to small towns and theater festivals as far apart as Lincoln, Nebraska, and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Last Time School Did Our Town: “Ages and ages ago,” according to Bundy. While it was the play that kicked off the teacher’s own high school drama career, he sees it more as a training piece than a production number. “It’s the thing you use bits and pieces of in class,” he says.

The Woodlands, Texas

Community: A planned community of 50,000 in a suburb of Houston.
Popularity of Theater: Of the school’s 5,000 students, 1,000 take theater department classes; about 80 students are “actively involved,” according to theater teacher Sandra Erlandson.
Spring Productions:Dearly Departed, a 1992 comedy set in the Bible Belt, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Chosen Because: Within a four-year period, the school tries to expose students to a variety of theater styles, including, according to Erlandson, “at least one Shakespeare, a Greek play, maybe, and something by a really contemporary American writer”—and it’s the last genre’s turn. Miller’s play was chosen as the school’s submission in a major theater contest. And, Erlandson says, “[it’s] one of the best American plays ever written.”
Last Time School Did Our Town: 1993. “I love the philosophy in it. It’s really hard to do because it can be so boring.”

—Samantha Stainburn

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