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Crowding the Stage

Students at Briar Woods High School take advantage of the chance to get on stage.

At Briar Woods High School, the play is truly the thing. Students all over the school are getting in touch with their inner thespian and drama teacher Marilyn Chambers is a big reason.

Almost immediately after she started at Briar Woods in 2006, she began creating more events for students to participate in. "Schools usually have a fall play and a spring musical. Sometimes students play sports in the fall and if they don’t like to sing, they can’t get on stage," she says. "That’s why I’ve tried to add more shows, to get more participation. I’ve found it only takes once or twice on stage for them to get over their shyness and begin to enjoy acting."

Her theory has worked, as the drama department gained 60 new students for the 2007-08 school year. They have added a Fractured Fairytale show, several nights of one-act plays, a cabaret night and a third major play for the year.

Even after adding extra shows, Gilligan goes even further when it comes to casting. "I like to add a lot of extra parts, to give more students the chance to get on stage. When we did 'Dracula' in the fall, there was only supposed to be three female vampires, I added about 20 more," she admits.

Gilligan is also a strong believer in letting the students become independent as they learn their craft. "My goal is to make the students self-assured, to give them the sense of ownership that comes with putting on a successful production," she says.

IN ADDITION to increased opportunities onstage, students are also getting a chance to see the practical side of a career in theater. In May, the drama department will be going to New York City to see three shows on Broadway. The students will also get a behind-the-scenes tour of two shows.

All of this is to educate the students about every aspect of the theater as a profession. "I teach every student as if they are looking into a career [in theater]," Gilligan says.

Students have responded to the chance to work in theater. Besides the actors and actresses, many students are helping with the technical aspects of the play. Students from tech-ed are assisting with construction of catwalks and a revolving stage for the current play, "Jekyll and Hyde."

"Jekyll and Hyde" is an "extra" show for the theater department, coming between the fall play and the spring musical. Students have been working overtime to squeeze it in, but they feel the results will be worth it. "We started practicing after rehearsals for 'Dracula,' which was our fall play," says Paul Burgess, who plays Henry Jekyll. "After that set was struck, we’ve been practicing this play after school until around nine on school nights, even more on the weekends. We did 14 hours last Saturday," he adds.

Briar Woods has never had three major plays in a school year before, but that hasn’t stopped the cast and crew from giving it their all. Aaron Hess plays Hyde, as well as designing most of the set. "I couldn’t have done it without my crew helping me out so much," he said.

BURGESS AND Hess were the students who first brought the idea of "Jekyll and Hyde" to the department. "They started bringing me scripts and music last year," Gilligan remembers, "They really wanted to put on this play."

The students are adding their own artistic vision to the play. The role of Jekyll and Hyde is traditionally the same person, but not so in this case. "Logistically, it makes more sense to have two actors," Burgess says. Hess and Burgess have taken the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde a step further, Hess shaved his head and Burgess dyed his hair black.

The play will be Briar Woods’ first show for the Cappies. The Cappies is an organization that teaches students to evaluate high-school theater around the country, which allows both critics and performers to improve their skills. Critics from the Washington, D.C.-program will be evaluating the Jan. 12 show as part of the spring season.