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Learning the art of show business

When you ask Jahanna Beecham why do plays in high school, the director of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at St. Mary's waxes eloquent: "Theater is a shared vision. It requires skill, a group commitment to excellence and an audience. It teaches the basics for success in any workplace: sharing, playing well with others, and the art of listening and answering. It requires personal bravery, a willingness to step outside of comfort zones, to risk and possibly fail, to explore the full range of human experience, and acknowledge its universality. It teaches tolerance like no other art form."

Almost every one of our area high schools is currently working on a production of a play. Phoenix High recently produced a student-written mystery and North Medford High just closed its run of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

St. Mary's production will be performed at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in downtown Medford. The Tony Award-winning musical has a cast of 55. Providing the music will be an 18-piece orchestra drawn from area professionals, including members of the Rogue Valley Symphony, Oregon Cabaret Theatre and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

St. Mary's School produces two full productions each year: a fall play and a spring musical. The fall play is rehearsed and performed by students in the fall acting classes. The spring musical is open to all students and rehearsed after school. The school plans to build a new performing arts center on campus in the next five years.

"Theater also offers a place for kids who aren't athletes or musicians to express themselves," Beecham says. "Quite often, the quiet ones who never speak in class suddenly blossom when put on the stage. Their uniqueness, which in other social contexts makes them feel like outsiders, becomes the very thing that gives them power on stage.

"That power can spread to other parts of their lives, empowering them to take on new challenges. Many professional actors will tell you that they were extremely shy people in high school until they discovered the world of theater."

"Thoroughly Modern Millie" runs at 7 p.m. Friday, March 7; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 8; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Seating is reserved. Tickets are $12 and are available online at www.craterian.org, by phone at 779-3000, or at the door.

Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland, will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Mountain Avenue Theatre by presenting another Broadway musical, "Disney's Beauty and the Beast." Bruce Hostetler directs with choreography by Liisa Ivary. Many performers in the 36-member cast play multiple roles.

Ashland High puts on three mainstage productions; six one-acts; one to three student-written plays; two fundraisers for the department and one or two full-length student productions in the black box theatre. This involves 150 to 200 students. The three main-stage shows and all senior projects are all extracurricular; all one-acts are rehearsed within class with techs and dress rehearsals outside of class; fundraisers have in-class rehearsals.

Ashland High has a nationally accredited technical theater program that satisfies the college credits at Rogue Community College.

"Our students run everything backstage," drama teacher Betsy Bishop says. "There are no adults running any lights, sound or equipment in some of the '300-cue' shows. I am very proud of their commitment to excellence."

Bishop says, "Good theater training provides the best personal work ethic that team sports offer as well as the most integrated arts experience in the world. If a person is successful in the theater as an ensemble player or company member, he or she will be an excellent candidate in any field that requires concentration, focus, teamwork and timing. Isn't that every field?"

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" runs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, March 5-15, with two matinees on Sunday, March 9 and 16. Tickets are $15 in advance and $17 at the door, general admission, and $10 in advance and $12 at the door for children under 12 and seniors over 60. Tickets are available at AHS Main Office, Paddington Station, Tree House Books, Music Coop and all Ashland elementary schools. Call 482-8771.

Grants Pass High School, 830 N.E. Ninth St., Grants Pass, will present the classic comedy "The Man Who Came To Dinner." The production involves 25 students on stage plus six to seven doing tech.

The play's director and the school's theater arts instructor Kate Skudstad says the school has been very supportive. Grants Pass High puts on two main stage productions a year. One is always a musical. They are rehearsed after school.

Two in-school productions are developed in class for the entire semester. In addition to the main-stage productions, students write their own pieces and rewrite classics, which they perform for select audiences. The school offers a number of theater-related classes covering everything from body movement to stage production.

Skudstad describes the feeling of success a student can feel from being in a play. "I can do something. People like it. They applaud. That makes me feel good. It's something to look forward to. It helps the students empathize with different kinds of people when they play different characters."

Rehearsals for "The Man Who Came To Dinner" started five weeks ago. Skudstad has a student stage manager, two assistant stage managers and a properties manager. A woman in Grants Pass who had a costume business makes the costumes. Skudstad says the woman does it because she loves it and she loves the kids.

"The Man Who Came To Dinner" runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, March 7-15, and at 2 p.m. Sundays, March 9 and 16. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. Call 474-5710.

South Medford High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford, is getting ready to open the Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy, "The Pirates of Penzance." The production has included student participation from the band, orchestra and choir departments at South High. In addition some parents of cast members created and sewed costumes for the entire cast.

Sword fighting sequences in the show were coached by Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Christopher DuVal. Orchestra members include SMHS students, Southern Oregon University musicians, and a few professional players from the community. Lynn Sjolund, director of the Rogue Valley Chorale is conducting the orchestra. South's drama director Julia Strickland is directing.

South High's theatrical season includes two main productions, one musical every other year, multiple student-directed one-act plays, and a showcase of student class projects. Most productions are developed during theater classes, and at least one production is open to the entire student body.

Two of the drama and theater classes at South can be taken for Rogue Community College credit. South's drama students attend the Oregon Thespian Competitions annually where students are adjudicated based on solo, duet and musical performances. This year the State Oregon Thespian Conference will be held in Southern Oregon at North, South and the Craterian.

Strickland's students tell her that being in a high school play enables them to experience "real" life, gain a lot of friends and share the experience with people they might not usually be associated with socially, bringing people from different backgrounds and groups together.

"Being in plays helps to build confidence and self- worth, which is exactly what many teenagers need," one student said.

Strickland asserts that: "The skills that are learned while involved with a theatrical production, such as discipline, accountability and dedication are all assets of academically strong individuals. Theater provides the students with practical experiences to help them grow into successful community members in a safe, fun and exciting environment."

"The Pirates Of Penzance" runs at 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, Feb. 28 through March 1, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 2. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. Call 842-1416.

This weekend, Crater High School's Renaissance Academy, a humanities-based school at 655 Third St., Central Point, is hosting actors from Portland's bilingual Teatro Milagro for a presentation of "Zapatista" written by the theater's Artistic Director Dañel Malán.

The production will feature students from the Academy in cameo roles in this special adaptation. The performance is the culmination of a three-day bilingual theater residency involving the entire student body of 400 students.

Spanish teacher Darcy Rogers says the residency and the play offer "something positive for Latino students to hang on to."

In depicting the struggles of the National Liberation Army, the play demonstrates the power of the spoken word to bring about social change. Malán points out to the students how education empowered the indigenous people of Chiapas.

"One of the exercises," Rogers said, "is for the students to create an image of a community social issue or a problem then re-create the image showing a solution."

After school, students will create very short dramatic scenes, some of which will be performed in the play. Others will appear on the theater's Web site. "We are rehearsing in the classroom from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a 40-minute lunch break," Malán said.

"Zapatista" plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 1. The performance is free. Call 494-6280.

A scene from South Medford High School’s current production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”