The cast of “Lend Me a Tenor,” starring Alexis Kemp (front row, left to right), Cory Flannery, Jasmine Pacheco, Travis McGhee (back row, left to right), Ray Rubio, Rachel Austria, Tristan Edwards and Ashleigh Cobb.
To act or not to act. That is the question several area students can now answer for themselves at their own schools.
Over the past couple of years, the theater bug has been caught throughout the Northern Neck and Essex County, infecting teachers and children alike with a fiery passion for the dramatic arts and placing the opportunity to star as classic characters such as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat at students’ fingertips.
A role that much of the youth could only try to play in past times by having someone drive them half an hour to a community theater can now be experienced upon the dazzling stage of Essex High School’s new state-of-the art auditorium, or within the classroom of a school that has historically not made such an option available.
But this bursting enthusiasm for instilling theater in education has been made possible by drama’s deep-seeded roots in other school programs that have been keeping the theatrical spirit alive in the community for decades.
Recently, Essex High School pulled off its first major theatrical production in more than a decade. A cast and crew of eager high school students assembled under the direction of English teacher Vicki Favazza to showcase award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” a comedy rife with mistaken identities, accidental situations and thundering operatic music.
During dress rehearsal, sophomore Travis McGhee, filled the stage with his domineering presence as the boisterous Henry Saunders while junior Tristan Edwards embraced the role of the venerable tenor Tito Merelli, junior Cory Flannery came alive as the singing bellhop and Jasmine Pacheco, characterized by Favazza as a shy and sweet student, transformed into the fiery Maria Merelli as she constantly yelled at her onstage husband for his alleged misdeeds.
While some students, such as McGhee and junior Rachel Austria, were taking on their first major play through this comedy, others, like seniors Ashleigh Cobb and Ray Rubio, had previous show credits to their names, yet were delighted to star in a show with actors and actresses their own age.
In between rehearsal breaks, McGhee was doing an impromptu interview with the press on his own when, in less than a minute, nearly the entire cast and crew gathered around to share their theatrical experiences. They noted how they came from different backgrounds and barely knew each other prior to the play, yet were now close friends because of it.
Favazza said that had the students been approached for an interview when rehearsals were just beginning, only three of them would have come forth.
She called this cast the very best she has had in memorizing their parts.
“There have been some years where the week before the show, there’s a lot of lines missing,” said Favazza. “That has not been the case with these kids. They wanted this that bad.”
“Lend Me a Tenor” took place in Essex High School’s brand new auditorium through not only the efforts of Favazza and her students, but also through the assistance of other teachers and the community.
Loveless oversaw the auditorium’s state-of-the-art sound system while the Lancaster Players, particularly Ben Estes and Lee Pulling, provided the bright red set and local vendors such as Carl Slaughter of Tappahannock Furniture and Angela Payne of Bridal Boutique in Gloucester helped Favazza with set pieces and costumes.
Favazza said her students received the “highest of praises” from the community for their performance of the play.
“The highest praise we have received was this: ‘I thought this was supposed to be a high school performance! ‘” exclaimed Favazza.
As she was doing rehearsals of the show, Favazza said she has had students stopping her in the hallways to say that they wished they were or wanted to be a part of her Drama class.
Favazza has also turned around upon hearing laughter to see students, who came back early from classes at the Northern Neck Technical Center, watching rehearsals.
Favazza said that theater gives students self-esteem and job skills that they can use forever.
“Sometimes the shyest child can really just come to life as an actor on the stage, or even the person working crew backstage,” said Favazza. “They’re responsible for keeping up with those props and making sure that they’re ready to go back on the set when the time is right, and so even those kinds of jobs behind the scenes build that self-confidence too.”
Favazza said she is looking to do a dance number in the spring as well as a smaller scale production called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a play based on artwork that had been buried by children of the Holocaust.
As to whether or not there is a future for theater at Essex High School, Favazza is optimistic.
“With kids telling me they should be in drama, with kids coming up in class, saying now I’ve got the confidence, I think I can audition for the next one, I think it’s going to happen for us, I do,” she said.
To learn more about drama opportunities at Essex High School, contact Vicki Favazza at email@example.com.
Across the Rappahannock River, Richmond County Intermediate School did not even have a drama department four years ago. Most of its students had limited or no acting experience.
But now, Whittney Myers, who kicked off the theater program three years ago at RCI, is teaching the middle school’s first Drama class to 14 seventh and eighth graders, all of whom now have drama experience.
One of her students, 8th grader Nicholas Drinkwater, who had acted before in an assembly on Bullying, shared his interest in set designing that he had acquired through the class.
“I find that really cool because you get to read through the play and then you get to take in like, imagine what the set would look like and how the characters would act,” said Drinkwater, who added that had theater been available earlier, he would have taken it.
“I guess it’s just my personality,” Drinkwater said in reference to his interest in acting. “Many of the teachers say I’m very colorful.”
For Myers, there is no question that the middle school’s theater program has grown.
“My first year, it was mostly my current class of 6th graders who auditioned and acted in the play,” Myers said. “Now, I have students from all three grades showing interest, and I am hoping to work with the high school next year in creating a drama department up there.”
Last school year, parents and families were transported to a land over the rainbow as they watched their children bring classic characters such as Dorothy, the Scarecrow and Wicket Witch of the West to life in their colorful, lively rendition of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Ticket sales from the production and other past performances has allowed Myers to assemble a budget that she can use to buy costumes, props and other materials for her next major show in which actors and audience will journey down the rabbit hole together in “Alice in Wonderland.”
Auditions for the play will be held in January and performance dates have already been set for April 11 and April 12 of next year in the RCI gymnasium at 7 p.m.
“We are looking at actually adding some middle school band students, in order to make it a musical, which is exciting!” Myers exclaimed. “I have had many of my new 6th graders express interest in auditioning for the show, so I anticipate a pretty big turnout for auditions.”
In addition to student enthusiasm, Myers has had a handful of parents who expressed interest in assisting with costumes and set designs for the show. A few teachers who are new to the school this year have also offered to help Myers with the production.
Myers said theatre is vital to the community as it is a way to bring its residents together to enjoy something positive.
As for the students themselves, Myers noted that they are able to interact with like-minded individuals that can provide them with support and constructive criticism.
“Theater allows students to be involved in something fun and interactive after school, that culminates in a performance for the community in the Spring,” Myers said. “It gives them an alternative to athletics and academic clubs.”
Eighth grader Becky McGlinn, who most recently starred as the Cowardly Lion in RCI’s “Wizard of Oz” and was also Red Riding Hood in the middle school performance of the Brothers Grimm Collection of Plays, agreed with her teacher.
“I’ve made a lot of friends since I did it and I think I have better social skills and I’m definitely louder,” said McGlinn, who noted she used to be really quiet. “It helps you communicate with people better, and it brings out because you get to see more about what emotions are really like.”
She added that through the plays, she has been able to work with other students with whom she wouldn’t normally socialize because they were in different grade levels.
Another student in Myers’ Drama Class, 7th grader Alexis Brooks, said she used to think that theater was “kind of boring” before she participated in it through RCI.
“But now I just love it. I love it to death,” Brooks said as she described how she helped decorate the background for “The Wizard of Oz” and assisted those students when they forgot their lines.
Through participating in drama under Myers, Brooks said she has been learning acting techniques such as blocking, and that she has also been able to help out at the Westmoreland Players.
Brooks said she is looking forward to Alice in Wonderland as well as learning more about theater.
To learn more about the drama program at Richmond County Intermediate School, contact Whittney Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While drama in schools is experiencing a rebirth in Richmond and Essex counties, opportunities for drama have fueled Lancaster students’ acting and stage interests for nearly 30 years.
Lancaster Middle School (LMS) teacher Robin Blake, who started the primary school’s drama club 28 years ago and has been in charge of the middle school program for 11 years, said that when she sponsored the county’s high school group 15 years ago, students were competing and succeeding in the Virginia High School Leagues one-act competition, winning district titles and placing at regional events.
“My most memorable experiences are from my ‘old’ drama club, and the time we flew Peter Pan, but
things went a little haywire, and she ended up flying upside down!” Blake exclaimed. “Or the time in ‘Grease’ when we brought a real car on the stage and I thought the superintendent was going to kill me!”
Nowadays, the middle and high school programs in Lancaster County have been combined, with students from Lancaster High School (LHS) being included in spring productions at LMS.
But Blake said that her ‘new’ drama club has done a fantastic job with the Disney musicals that she keeps “throwing at them.”
“We have had amazing shows, huge audiences and even teachers requesting funding from the Rappahannock Foundation for the Arts to have the Primary School students brought to LMS to see our show,” said Blake. “They told me that our plays were as good as some of the professional shows that the Foundation has funded for the Primary School. That is such a nice compliment. I can only say that the drama club is a great part of my day, and I enjoy every facet of it!”
Blake said that students who participated in drama at middle school generally tend to audition again once they reach LHS.
“It is very rewarding to have around 175 students audition for my plays, and kind of disheartening to
realize that even with two casts, I still have to let a lot of students down,” Blake said. “Those who make the club, really enjoy the experience, and absolutely ‘shine’ on stage!”
She added that while all her students may not be the most athletic or even the most popular, they band together to produce stellar shows.
“They come out of their shell, sing, dance, and act as characters on stage, where they can be whomever they want to be,” she said.
The middle school drama club is open to all students in grades 4-12, and Blake believes that almost every grade is represented this year. Everyone is eligible to audition, she said, and has an equal chance to earn the role that they want. Her program will be putting on Peter Pan in the spring.
To learn more about the drama club at Lancaster Middle School, contact Robin Blake at email@example.com.