<bt>Robert Bromley decided last year that Oakton High School would perform "Little Shop of Horrors" this fall. As the school's theater director, he said, "I needed to make use of this big, huge piece of set." He was referring to a two-story, two-sided facade of stairways, doorways, windows and walkways.
He and his crew spent three months and more than $5,000 building the massive set piece last year, and it has already been home to "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Mousetrap" and "Hint." Ultimately, said Bromely, he expects to get about nine plays out of the investment, which he now envisions as a suitable skid row for Seymour Krelborn's plant shop. The crew is already hard at work replacing the set's surface with faux brick.
Of course, there is more than one factor that goes into selecting a play for high school performance. Bromley said this dark comedy came to his attention because it was recently revived in New York and was successful with the younger crowd. "We're playing to our audience here," he said.
He also pointed out that the abilities of his students are a major factor in deciding when to perform a certain play. By last year, he said, he had recognized that there was a lot of potential to be tapped in his rising juniors and seniors, and he had even picked out some casting possibilities for the show.
His current group is distinguished by both their individual talents and the "personal chemistry" between them, he said.
"This is one of those golden years. We are the crest," said Bromley. "I looked at the talent pool that I have, and I looked at the set piece and said, 'This is the year we can do "Little Shop."'"
When it comes to making that decision, he said, it is solely his call. "I tell the kids, 'Here's what we're doing. How do you want to do it?'" he said.
The question is a serious one. Each scene of the "Little Shop" production has a different student director and student choreographer. Three students make up a sort of "council of continuity" that makes sure the scenes flow together.
AT JAMES MADISON High School, theater director Marshall Henderson has worked out a loose system for selecting plays from year to year. Every other fall production is Shakespeare; non-Shakespeare fall productions alternate between modern comedies and modern dramas. Winter productions consist of eight student-directed one-acts chosen or written by the director. The spring production, such as this year's "Carnival," is always a musical.
One reason he chose "Carnival" this year, said Henderson, is that the show "gives the kids the opportunity to do things they wouldn't normally be doing," such as juggling, aerial stunts and magic tricks. Even the extras, he said, "get to do lots of fun stuff."
He also said the play meets his criteria of having a universal message applicable to the high school age group. As a story about a girl who falls in love with the wrong guy — a magician who turns out to be all flash — instead of the less glamorous puppeteer, the play "says a lot about the world of illusion," said Henderson. "Things aren't always what they seem to be, and not every smooth-talking, cool stranger has your best interest at heart."
It is also important that the show is in a different vein than last year's spring production of "West Side Story," he said. "Like a professional theater, you want to really mix your season around so the audience is kept on its toes."
To select a play, he said, he had his students research musicals and report on their specifications such as size of cast, difficulty of acting and how they apply to high school theater. "Then I look through their suggestions and make a selection."
ORIGINALITY IS A MAJOR criteria for choosing a play at George C. Marshall High School, said theater director Mark Krikstan. "We're kind of proud that we've been the first high school to do a lot of plays," he said, noting that Marshall was the first to perform "The Cripple of Innishmaan" and "Sideshow" and last year barely missed being the first high school to perform the edgy "Urinetown."
This spring, it appears that the school will be the first to perform an adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty" by Rufus Norris of London's Young Vic Theatre Company. Krikstan said this "darker, more comic version" of the fairy tale "puts Beauty in a world of ogres and ogresses that eat kids."
He gave his students a choice between this play and a series of student-directed one-acts. Krikstan said he thinks they ultimately chose "Sleeping Beauty" because the manic, "Monty Python-esque" script appealed to them. "They recognize the humor. It's written for contemporary kids," he said.
Junior Julia Weed pointed out that there had been strong parental dissent toward the idea of student-directed one-acts for a spring production. "I think a lot of parents felt they wanted their kids getting as much time being directed by Mr. Krikstan as possible," she said.
The show's sense of humor played a big part in the students' decision to perform it she said. "We kind of go for dark humor."
Junior Alex Mandell said he was at first skeptical of a "Sleeping Beauty" adaptation, but, he said, "when I read the script it was just hilarious. It was full of these hilarious moments that are going to be really entertaining."
THERE ARE ALSO certain considerations that consistently limit choices for high school plays.
One is cast size. "I'm always looking for shows with big casts," said Krikstan. "You want to try to get as many kids onstage as possible."
Henderson said casts can occasionally be as small as seven to 10 actors, which gives more students a chance to gain stage tech experience, but he normally looks for a much larger cast.
Appropriateness is also a factor. Bromley quipped, "I want [the audience] to be shocked by how good the kids are, not by the show."
He also noted that the theater department generally works with the band and chorus on plays, so those groups get some say in the choice as well.
Henderson noted that the play's instrumentation cannot be too outlandish for the band to duplicate.
And, of course, no work begins on a play until the principal has approved of it.