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A kitchen scene, a wobbly door set into a drywall structure, and a comfy chair and record player embellished the cafetorium stage, but the spotlights stayed dark.
Teens dotted the stage wearing bits of costume mixed with school clothes — on her, a giant wedding ring, character shoes, and ripped jeans; on him, wingtip shoes and a T-shirt. Just weeks before opening night, Elizabeth High School students did their first full run-through of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
While the narrator, played by Michael Brend, played a recording of his favorite old-timey musical, the extras sat around and did homework or chatted quietly. In an era rife with bullying and young suicides, this group turned out to be ripe with love and support.
Between songs, one kid takes off his wingtip shoes, and puts on roller skates.
Their rich, round voices serenaded the empty room without microphones, from lungs that are still growing, and Jillian Williams talked about life with her castmates.
“This is the thing that keeps us going,” said the 16-year-old junior.
Earlier this year, Williams walked into practice to find the audio/visual club filming a segment called “How hard is it being a performing arts kid?” When posed the question, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by her parents' upcoming divorce, and her schedule stacked with advanced placement classes, paired with early mornings rolling into evening extracurriculars.
“I was going through a lot, so I just broke down in tears,” she said.
The entire group hugged her. Talking about that moment, and thinking of her group parting as they neared the end of their high school journeys, Williams teared up again. She said that without them, “I think I would be a completely different person.”
Brend, a 17-year-old senior, said, “I go through my day, and no matter what happened, I can go be with my best friends.”
Extras started talking about old productions they did together, and showed each other pictures on smartphones. Rehearsal ended, parents came to pick up their kids, and other kids asked their friends for rides home. Almost everyone filtered out, but Brend and a few other kids kept going over lines and songs, laughing and dancing together.
After scaring everyone with his newfound ability to jump up the stairs two at a time, the kid wearing roller skates switched over to tap shoes. Jennifer Barclay, the theater director, pulled on her own tap shoes, and took him through the dance break.
Barclay, a redheaded woman with a rosy smile and upbeat attitude, is clearly respected and well-loved by this young troupe. Her light spirit comes in bold contrast to how seriously she takes her position. After teaching all day, she directed rehearsal, which was set to end at 6 p.m., but she stayed late.
“I would rather they remain 100 percent confident, even if that means they need to run through 20 times,” Barclay said.
After the extra run-throughs, Barclay went home to sew costumes and make marketing materials.
“This group is the best group I've ever had,” Barclay said. “They're the only reason I stay here.”
The band director, Alexander Gonzalez, also felt the pinch of too few hands paired with the desire to challenge his students. He normally provides a live band for these productions, but his pianist joined the cast, and he didn't have the necessary number of trumpeters. His solution, which the band kids loved, was to pre-record every track.
“Grace, I hope you know how great you are up there,” Barclay called out to one of the lead characters, who was coming off the stage an hour after practice officially ended. The girl blushed and dismissed her kind words.
During casting, Barclay offended some of the older performing arts kids by giving a good role to a freshman. Though uncomfortable at the time, she said everyone's egos have now healed.
“I ask them everyday to show me their emotions. They don't know how to turn them off sometimes,” said Barclay, taking the heat for the casting kerfuffle. “Because they're dramatic, they're very vocal.”
But that also illuminates how close these kids are.
“Sometimes we fight, but it's like family,” Brend said. “I've known some of these people since kindergarten.”
Barclay hopes this upcoming musical will attract a decent crowd even though it's not as familiar as "The Little Mermaid." She chose "The Drowsy Chaperone," removing all of the adult themes before giving the kids their scripts, because she felt the performers deserved a bigger challenge.
Toward the end of the night, the props and scenery, which were hand-built and painted by the cast, somehow appeared sturdier and charming. With the tap number over, the kid with all the shoe changes took off his tap shoes and slipped into a comfortably worn pair of cowboy boots, pulled down his cowboy hat, and left for the night.
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