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A real-time 'gathering' of cultures

Ashland High School drama students got a rare thrill Monday when they performed a play that was watched in real time in Greece by the teens who wrote the play.

Using video conferencing, the ninth-graders acted out "An Easter Gathering," the tale of a family torn apart after the mother has to go to Dubai to find work to support the family.

Two teen siblings have to engage the reality of this loss, get over some teen "attitude," and step into the mom's role of caring for the house and raising the other children.

"It opens them up to a bigger world," says AHS drama teacher Betsy Bishop. "Theater is about specific people and cultures, and here they are, in our American culture, acting a play for kids in Greece who created it, and who are seeing it right now, 6,682 miles away."

The play is especially poignant, Bishop adds, because the AHS kids asked the kids in Anatolia, Greece, whether this were a real or imaginary situation. Seven raised their hands, saying it was happening to them right now.

"It was very interesting, because it was translated from the Greek and a lot of things were not as we'd say them. Plus they have very different customs around Easter," says Kaya Van Dyke, who played a bratty teen girl, tracing her shift to a rapidly maturing mother figure for her younger brother.

Bishop notes that Van Dyke's character "was petulant and self-absorbed but became generous and disciplined" in her mom stance.

The play was done at 8 Monday morning so it could be viewed in Greece at 6 in the evening. It was also viewed in New York by the Manhattan Theatre Club on its TheatreLink.

The two high schools, plus Loyola High School in Chicago, have been trading plays and will do the next one Wednesday evening, when Loyola reads an AHS work.

The Greek students all spoke English well, but had comments from Ashland High School students translated to make sure they were understood.

"They liked our version," says Tessa Buckley, who notes it was a bit "nerve-racking but exciting" reading the work of a group from a different land and culture. "It helped me grow as an actor and get good experience."

Isaiah Brown played the sassy younger brother, who is 10 years old and innocent as the play begins but five years later has become "a hipster jerk, bratty to his family. He went downhill," Brown says.

The technology enabling instant video conferencing anywhere in the world was "an amazing tool for us to have during our theater training," says Brown.

"It was fun," says director Henry Mercer, who played the kids' uncle and persuaded the mom to depart for a job, leaving the Easter table bereft of her presence on this important holy day. "It was important to us how the stage looked."

TheatreLink is a curriculum-based Web project that connects high schools around the world for five-month periods to create and study theater together, notes its website. This site is used as a resource and communications center by the participating schools, it says.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Note: Story has been corrected to reflect the production was a performance, not a reading.

Nellie Strong, Isaiah Brown and Henry Mercer perform a scene from “An Easter Gathering,” written by students in Greece. - Jamie Lusch