"Guys!" shouts the stage manager, 11th grader Meagan Padgett, at a motley crew of teenage actors. "Let's focus, here! We've only got forty-five minutes to get to the end of the block. Back to the beginning of the scene." But the complete focus of the group cannot be reclaimed; they're having too much fun.
It's the first evening rehearsal for Robinson Secondary School's spring musical, "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," which is performing the last weekend of April and the first of May, but the rehearsal is constantly being interrupted by laughter. The whole group is overcome with giddiness, and everyone is all smiles. When the stage manager was asked to comment, she could only respond with, "I'm trying to take down blocking now. Will give you a quote later."
In the very beginning of the pre-process work, there was a lot of grumbling about the show (the cynicism of the Lighting Crew Chief, Trevor Stafford-Walter, was positively deadly). There were cries of outraged teenagers, shrieking "Disney?!" throughout the department, appalled at the thought of working on a piece of the childhood they'd put behind them, but, over the course of the show, any such grumbling has been stifled by the sheer energy of the enthusiasm that has blossomed within the cast and crew. A showing of the 1991 Disney movie was recently held in the Russell Theatre for the cast and crew to re-inspire their love for the story they knew so well growing up. "The spirit of the whole production has been incredibly cohesive and positive," said director Douglas "Chip" Rome, "and we know that that will translate on the stage to energy and quality."
Rome said, "'Beauty and the Beast' is the perfect challenge for us this year. It's just recently been released for amateur production, so it's not at all over-done in the community, and it's very, very accessible to a wide audience. It's very family friendly, it's got a great message and it has fabulous music. We have an amazingly talented cast and the confidence of coming off the Best Play award at last year's CAPPIES gala, so we feel we can bring even a show with these technical challenges to our audience in fine form!"
The cast and crew are just going into their third week of rehearsals, and everyone hopes to hit the ground running by the time of the show's upcoming Tech Day (the day that all the technical aspects of the show are added to the performance aspects in one fun-filled, often fourteen-hour-long day). Set pieces are frantically being built (by student Set construction crew chief, Brian Griffin), fabric is hastily being cut (by student costumes crew chief, Caitlin Geaghan), and props are being gathered in a whirlwind manner (by student props crew chief, Sheri Kim), along with the other various flurries of activity happening around the department.
"Our stage crew has been exceptional at getting the design and development phases of production going on early. This helps us ensure that we will have the time to create those precious last layers of the show's 'look' that gives it the extra polish we all want it to have," said director Rome, who is currently in his 25th year teaching at Robinson.
As student Trevor Stafford-Walter, the sophomore lighting crew chief, stays after school late on a Friday, he said, "I've sold my dignity to work on this show."
But notice all those repeated descriptions of "student"? It is part of the very foundation of the Robinson Drama Philosophy that the students create the theatre — every aspect of it, from tickets (Katie Jenkins, Katie #3), to publicity (Katie Tolson, Katie #6) to make-up (Katy Summerlin, Katie #5), to dance captain (Katy Burnard, Katy #2), to the singing teapot and wardrobe onstage (Katie Ference, Katie #1, and Katie Vallas, Katie #4). There are so many "Katies" running around that when a new Katie auditioned, Mr. Rome inquired if she'd be willing to change her name.
But Katies aside, the level of hands-on student involvement is very important to the running of the department, and the idea of learning that it promotes. But even more than the aspect of learning-by-doing, it teaches students to work together and form a stronger community. Caitlin Geaghan, the Head of Costumes, as she constantly teeters between exhilaration and fear, said, "My ACC [assistant crew chief] is Ally Hirst, a sophomore, like myself, and I couldn't do anything without her; she helps me out so much with everything and it's a blessing that I found her to work with, as well as be my friend and support during a show. [The responsibility made me think that] I was in this alone!" But everyone working here has learned that isn't the case.
Along with the hordes of students working on this production, it has also been a great gathering of our adult teachers into the show. "What's especially exciting for me personally," said director Rome, "is the new leadership team, including Mike Horanski as our music director, Mike Cook as our pit conductor, and Amy Hard as choreographer. All are truly team players with an obvious love for this kind of show and the ability to really connect with our cast, crew and musicians."
The excitement felt by the cast and crew extends into all related departments, including the musicians. "Being able to play the exact same music, note for note, as you would hear if you went to see Disney's Beauty and the Beast in Broadway is just amazing," said Lawrence Ngo, a 10th grader, and a clarinetist in the pit orchestra. "This is as real as it gets, from the script to the music; it doesn't get much more exciting than this. It's been quite awhile since Robinson has actually had a full pit orchestra for a musical, and there is no better way to start it again than with 'Beauty and the Beast.' The music is so exciting, invigorating, and most of all, it's so true to the original Disney movie. When the singers come in to rehearse with us, it brings the whole picture together. This could possibly be the best musical that Robinson has ever put on … It's time to unplug the speakers and tune into live music performed by Robinson's Beauty and the Beast Pit Orchestra!"
Junior Katie Jenkins, an ensemble member ("a singing and dancing flatware utensil — The Spoon, to be exact," she said), the understudy for Mrs. Potts, and the tickets crew chief, has similar feelings, "Another aspect that has been just a complete thrill is the chorus rehearsals. At first it was just dreadful to listen to everyone blindly scramble for the right notes, but now it gives me chills when I hear us sing Gaston's fight song when the mob storms the castle. And the choreography is really clever, considering we're all plates and napkins, which presents an interesting question: can spoons dance? And just how well can they dance? Come see the show and find out!"
But on the complete opposite side of the music are the words, and even those have not been neglected. Last year, during the CAPPIE award-winning play "MORPH," Robinson Drama began working with the idea of "Table Talks," which was very happily resurrected for this show. "A table talk," explains Katie Jenkins (Katie #3), "is when we sit around a table and read through the script, and whenever any question about anything comes up, we stop, and figure it out! These problems range from who's doing the opening narration, to how we're going to light the rose, to how we're going to transform our actor from a Prince to a Beast, and then back to a Prince again. We get to ask questions like 'what is the meaning of this line, or those lyrics?' and 'why is Belle singing this song? Why are we singing about Belle?' etc. etc. It's all those questions that you'd only think about if you had the time, and our director strategically gave it to us, and we have clearly been thriving from it!"
When Liz Venz, the actress playing one of the Silly Girls in the town who is head-over-heels for the town heart-throb Gaston, was asked to comment on the message of the show, she said, "Working on 'Beauty and the Beast' has taught me several valuable life lessons, such as never giving up chasing after the person you like, no matter how uninterested in you they are, laugh hysterically at everything, and always wear the same color." But director Chip Rome disagrees, "'Beauty and the Beast' shows the struggle of characters who are single-minded to a fault (Gaston, Belle, the Beast), and how important it is to be open to change and making honest connections with others. Gaston has no willingness to change, and he comes to a bad end. Belle takes refuge in fantasy until a real adventure comes her way, and embraces its challenges in such a selfless way that she becomes the heroine. The Beast had learned from the Enchantress before the play began that one is responsible for one's deeds, but his punishment is so harsh that he has become lost and embittered about any hope of finding redemption. It is only by reaching out to help others that we become worthy of self-improvement. The more you give, the more you get, I suppose. When he finally did the good deeds of defending others he earned Belle's love, and that spark of hope and goodness that had nearly been extinguished was finally able to flourish, so at the end we can see him as the good/handsome man that had been within, and that his beastly side has vanished."
The interest on conveying an important message and the struggle to do so permeates every level of involvement, student and adult. "[After] nearly four years in this theatre, I can safely say that 'B&B'—" the shorthand for 'Beauty and the Beast' that's grown into common usage among the cast and crew, "—has shown me an entirely different aspect of working on a show," says student assistant director, Carol Olsen, a graduating senior this year. "My passion is to be on the stage and in the spotlight; in fact I will be pursuing this after high school. But B&B is currently teaching me how to step back from my comfort zone in order to help and guide others." She struggles for the words, and laughs, "I guess what I'm trying to say is that by working on a completely different job, my actual, true passion stays the same: the desire to put on a brilliant show that will captivate audiences enough to bring them joy, even if it is only for a few hours. The impressions we make on our audience could last a lifetime, and my job in the theatre, no matter what my title may be, is to make sure our audience leave the play a little better than they came."
When busy stage manager Meagan Padgett was asked one last time to comment, she finally paused to say, "'Beauty and the Beast' has the highest morale, bar none, of any show I have ever worked on here at Robinson. It's fun, we're having fun with it, and it truly is the greatest love story ever told."