Nathan Webber as Porter entices a kiss from Ellen Dyar as Carlene in the Juneau-Douglas High School's production of the "Hallelujah Girls" opening May 3.
Marina McDowell, left, Ashleigh Watt, Ellen Dyar, Ariana Orford, Megan Wright play the "Hallelujah Girls", a production of the Juneau-Douglas High School opening May 3.
Story last updated at 5/2/2012 - 1:02 pm
A common refrain Michaela Moore hears is, "man, that doesn't look like a high school show."
When you run the Juneau-Douglas High School Theater Department, this is a good thing to hear. Since 2007, Moore has run the department. In that time, Juneau has had the opportunity to witness high school productions of "Les Mis," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Evita," "Kiss Me Kate" and others that do not "look like a high school show."
Perhaps we're thinking of our own sad high school drama experiences. A time when budding thespians put up with cardboard sets, questionable acting choices, indifferent instructors and a poignant lack of friends. But under Moore's direction and tutelage, JDHS drama could not be more different and their excellence will soon be recognized worldwide, starting with those in Edinburgh.
Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, hosts the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for three weeks every August. It bills itself as "the largest arts festival in the world." In addition to theater there will be children's shows, comedy, dance, music, exhibitions, operas, spoken word and more.
The American High School Theatre Festival occurs within the Festival Fringe's theater events. "A festival within a festival," said Moore, "the American High School Theatre Festival uses the Fringe Festival to kind of spark their festival ... to get a bigger array of audience goers to the high school shows."
To get into The American High School Theatre Festival - at the Festival Fringe, in Edinburgh - high school theatre programs have to be invited. A theater professional or alumni of The American High School Theatre Festival must nominate the high school program to the festival. Then an application process ensues which, according to Moore, is tedious and complex with a lot of essay questions. The American High School Theatre board reads all the applications materials, including the essays, pictures of productions, and the written recommendations of the person who first nominated the program.
Moore is not sure who nominated the JDHS theater program.
"The person has asked to remain anonymous," Moore said.
She suspects the production of "Les Mis" first got the program notice. There were a hundred students on stage; it was an incredible challenge of logistics. Moore believes whoever nominated them kept watching to see if the program sustained that level of excellence.
In 2011, The American High School Theatre received 2,200 applications from schools invited to apply. The board selected 48, which is less than 3 percent of the applications. The process is selective so students within the chosen programs can have a "grand and huge" experience at the festival.
"It's quite an honor," Moore said, "to even be noticed in the first place, up here in Juneau, Alaska, to be even nominated."
Moore received a giant certificate notifying the program of the award last September.
Needless to say, the numbers suggest this is a big deal. The American High School Theatre states upon choosing a program that "you are one of the best high school theater programs in the nation." In Edinburgh, there will be an awards ceremony where, Moore said: "I think, I'm guessing, we might get a nicer little plaque."
When in Edinburgh, the JDHS performers will be able to take advantage of top-notch technical equipment such as lighting, sound and technicians that know how to run it. Being part of the American High School Theatre Festival means the stage and technicians are included in the trip price. Over two weeks, the JDHS students will perform their play four times. There will be workshops and other activities at the festival.
By being part of the American High School Theatre Festival the students will be housed and fed. The students will interact with the other U.S. high school drama programs that were chosen. They will participate in a travel itinerary including tours to areas away from the festival. The students will be chaperoned day and night over the entire time. So not only will the festival be a great place to show off Juneau's talented teens, but it will be a safe and action packed opportunity for them to experience a foreign country.
Still, money has to be raised. Educating and transporting a theater company of teenagers for two weeks in a foreign country will not be cheap, along with other related expenses. Thus, a primary focus of the JDHS high school theater program over the next year is fundraising.
"We're trying really hard to raise the money through our shows," Moore said. "Our auditorium is big enough that if people came to the shows we would raise so much money it's unreal."
She said that with the split in high schools, attendance to plays at both schools has been down. Moore hopes that Juneau residents consider following her students' example and attend shows at both schools.
"The community should be behind all these students to put on these shows it's hours and hours of hard work," Moore said.
To increase ticket sales, the department is implementing a number of novel incentives to increase attendance.
The show "Hallelujah Girls" runs at 7 p.m. May 3, 4, 11 and 12 in the JDHS auditorium. May 3 is spa night, or "girls night out". The program will give away a gift certificate for a fancy spa experience during that night's show. Pie night is May 11. Whole pies and slices of pie will be on sale in honor of the show's southern theme. (I've been assured by Moore, a Texan, that the student's Southern accents are excellent.) Baked goods and flowers will be sold at every show. The May 12 show will have a huge door prize for anyone who buys a ticket. The theme of the door prize is "A Night Out in Juneau" and will include limousine service, a dinner, a night at Best Western Grandma's Feather Bed and whale watching from Allen Marine.
"'Hallelujah Girls' is a huge comedy geared for the whole family," Moore said. "It's a lot of fun. It's not too serious. Points of seriousness occur, but are dealt with a light heartedness."
It's a farce about life in a small Southern town, where for two residents, the same frictions and antagonisms from high school still exist 20 years later.
Next year's shows and fundraising efforts are also the in the works.
In the fall of 2012, the program will produce the play "Hairspray." This is a large production involving the community, both high schools and a professional director from the Cornish College of the Arts. Moore is excited how serendipity intervened to have this production involve both high schools. After a series of hard-core auditions, the female lead will be from JDHS, and the male lead will be from Thunder Mountain High School.
In February 2013, the JDHS program will put on Stephen Sondheim's "Company." Moore is excited for the "creative theatrical things" that will occur in this musical. Moore promises "it's going to be different than anything done before" and will provide a challenge which her students really need.
Moore has not yet decided what the production for spring of 2013 will be, but it is the show that will be taken to Edinburgh.
"There is so much pressure to pick the right show," Moore said.
She's thinking it will be a musical.
In addition to the stage productions, the JDHS theater program and the students are involved in a number of other dramatic efforts.
This year, the program picked up the "Trashin' Fashion Show" for Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. And just recently, many of the students competed successfully in Alaska's drama, forensics and debate competition. The Juneau students won the overall drama award, came second in forensics (speech), and did better than ever in debate.
"It really helps them hone their skills to step up and compete," Moore said.
Moore believes when you work in theater, you deal in legacy. There is a legacy of excellence within JDHS Theater Program the students want to continue. Moore keeps the "Les Mis" flag hanging in the rehearsal room as a reminder of that legacy.
"Look, this was going on before you, and it will continue to go on after you, and it is your job to continue excellent theater," Moore said. "Once they get to high school you can't baby them."
Moore teaches them how to audition, compete, deal with getting what they want, not to be a diva. As teenagers, Moore said, they're not "expected to rise to professionalism." She doesn't buy that sentiment.
Moore is proud of all the students she's had. She talked extensively about their hard work and their professionalism. She's amazed by how driven they are to give the community a good show.
"I want them to learn as much as they can, and when they get out into the real world so they can compete," Moore said.
The Festival Fringe in Edinburgh is a good opportunity for these students to get out into the world. Juneau has the opportunity to help make the real world a reality for these students. We just have to buy a ticket to witness excellence, to witness a high school show "that doesn't look like a high school show."