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Students on the stage

When I was in junior high school I tried out for the school play, "Time Out for Ginger."

It was a comedy about a high school girl, Ginger, who wants to play on the boy's football team. This causes much embarrassment to her older sisters, one of whom is dating the captain of the football team. It also is a source of consternation to her banker father, Howard, and her boyfriend, Tommy Green.

I got the part of Tommy and was quickly introduced to the heady world of school drama. Back then, I was completely unaware that the play had a successful run on Broadway and later toured with such cast members as Melvin Douglas, Art Carney and Jack Benny taking their turns playing the befuddled father. Even Gena Rowlands showed up in it at one point.

But none of these people were in the production I was in at Radford High School. The person who played Ginger's mother in our production wrote each of the cast members two letters: one addressed to us as the people we were in real life and one to the person we were portraying. That seemed so weird and yet so cool.

The whole experience was lots of fun and required many hours of work after school and on weekends for a very short run of a couple of weekends. It meant wearing stage makeup; memorizing lines; learning from the director and other actors, set designers and crew; and getting to know which way was stage right, upstage, stage left and downstage. So this is what the theater is about, I mused.

Yes, it is what theater is about and there are students right now learning and performing on the stages of their high school theaters and auditoriums.

Area high schools and Southern Oregon University took the opportunity to produce a spate of plays while the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was dark and Camelot Theatre Company, Oregon Stage Works, Oregon Cabaret Theatre and Ashland Community Theatre were in between shows. Something about "While the cat's away the mice will play" comes to mind.

Sadly, because of scheduling demands, the runs for these shows tend to be all too brief, especially in proportion to the time spent in rehearsals.

High school and university theater departments have another agenda when choosing plays that goes beyond presenting interesting shows. What can the students learn from their experience of working on this particular play? Is there some social significance to its themes, some timely — or timeless — elements that warrant their attention?

At the university, the students also need to be exposed to representative plays from the history of theatrical literature. They need to be exposed to Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, satire, classics from many traditions and the best of the new. They need to try experimenting with different approaches to producing a play. They should experience bare-bones staging with simple costumes and sets and elaborate staging with lavish costumes, sets, props, lighting and sound. They should know what it's like to work as stage designer and crew as well as actor and director, so they really appreciate firsthand that the theater is a community of artists, an ensemble effort.

The experience should be challenging and it should be fun. After all, it's called "playing."

A quick look at what has been on stage these past few weeks around the valley will give you a good idea of what our young people are learning about life these days seen through the lens of theater:

Ashland High School, "Little Shop of Horrors"; Eagle Point High School, "Our Town"; Crater Renaissance High School, "Night of the Living Dead"; Grants Pass High School, "The Music Man"; North Medford High School, "Twelve Angry Jurors"; Phoenix High School, "The Mousetrap"; South Medford High School, "The Man Who Came To Dinner"; and Southern Oregon University, "Arcadia" and "Women of War." You couldn't ask for a bigger variety of plays to choose from.

Alas, all the school plays have come and gone. For now. But when spring rolls around, the young thespians will be at it again. They'll have more competition from the professional and semiprofessional theaters in the area, and their runs will be very short. But I strongly recommend that you plan to see one or more of these shows.

Even if your own kids and your friends' kids have long since graduated and you don't know anyone in the production, it's still an experience well worth supporting. You just can't help but admire each one of them for doing all that work — and having all that fun, playing.