I went to high school in the mid-1970’s just outside of Philadelphia. Our school was known for exceptional academics and strong sports teams. The arts? We had a decent choral group and the orchestra was passable.
Oh, and there was the theatre department. Calling it an actual department may be an overstatement.
Our school put on two shows every year. Both were musicals. Both were horrible. The only difference between the two was the season. There was the awful winter musical and the awful spring musical. The director, a delightful woman who I had great respect for, always tried to get me to audition. I declined her offers at every turn because at that point in my life, I simply didn’t have the courage to get up on stage.
But a funny thing happened on the way to bad high school theatre: Our auditorium was filled to capacity for every performance. Parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, neighbors and teachers, not to mention everyone in the various cliques throughout school – the athletes, the anti-socials, the brainiacs who solved calculus equations at lunch and then turned them into “knock-knock” jokes that were way above my level of comprehension – when the show went up, it was the unspoken understanding that you’d go see the play.
Back then, there was always the acknowledgement that our fellow students up on stage working their tails off were still a part of us. And we were a part of them. Not going to see them sing, dance and act was as unheard of as not going to the Friday night football game.
A lot of time has passed since those days. My taste for theatre has matured from a burger and a malt to a glass of Merlot with sushi. Part of that has to do with spending a quarter-century on the professional stage. My expectations for a certain level of excellence jaded me, whether I realized it or not, into thinking there was little to no value in going and seeing a high school play, much less a more complicated musical.
This just in: Growing older and wiser doesn’t mean you won’t have moments of utter stupidity. “Mr. Shortsighted, party of one, your table is ready.”
This past weekend I went to see a production of My Fair Lady at Wayzata High School in suburban Minneapolis. I teach at a children’s theatre company here and three of my students were in the show. That was reason enough to attend. And the fact it was at this particular high school gave me a modicum of assurance the show wouldn’t be a complete disaster.
To understand Wayzata High School, think of the University of Texas in Austin. Huge school, outstanding academics, strong sports teams, wonderful arts and athletic facilities, gorgeous campus (yes, campus) and very well-funded and supported by its community. Pound-for-pound, Wayzata might as well be a distant cousin to Texas.
I arrived early to take in the whole scene.
As I looked around it began to hit me that not a lot had changed in 30 years. There they were, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, neighbors, teachers and lots of kids in varsity letter jackets all milling around with looks on their faces that were a combination of excitement and anxiety. And you can always pick out audience members that have connections to the cast. They’re the ones that look like they knocked off several hundred cups of coffee before coming to the theatre.
After a short curtain speech by the orchestra’s conductor, the lights dimmed and the act one overture began.
Three hours and 20 minutes later, the actors were taking their bows as I clapped as mightily as I could. Much to my great surprise, it turns out this was a high school production in name, and running time, only. As someone who has been around a few shows over the years, I almost couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. This was inspired theatre from start to finish.
I caught up with my three students, all of them rightfully glowing like spotlights on Broadway knowing they nailed the performance, and then made my way to the car where I proceeded to sit for a few minutes pondering things well beyond the play I just watched.
Seeing this group of kids working so beautifully together, having great fun and truly creating something every bit as memorable as a one of those magical Friday night football games, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been away for so long.
Yes, it’s a wonderful experience going to see a play on Broadway or Off Broadway. Here in Minneapolis, from the Guthrie to the Old Log, opportunities abound for great professional theatre. And it’s that way in most communities around the nation. But there’s something both charming and powerful in its innocence about going to see a high school play, especially a musical. Whether it’s brilliant theatre, or simply decent theatre, is well beside the point.
Most of the students I watched on that stage won’t pursue acting as a profession. But so what. Most of the boys suiting up in pads and helmets for a Friday night battle under the lights in the chill of Autumn won’t be playing in the NFL either. When all is said and done, most of these kids are singing songs and scoring touchdowns for reasons no more complicated than simply desiring the experience of doing something that looks like fun.
In high school theatre, there are scores of adults and students working tirelessly to create an experience that is memorable, both for participants and patrons alike. Seeing the unbridled joy through tears and hugs in the lobby afterwards wasn’t a whole lot different from the reaction fans have after winning one of those Friday night football games. The similarity between the two cannot be overstated.
The next time you’re pondering what to do on a Friday or Saturday night, maybe a quick check of the local high school’s arts offerings wouldn’t be a bad idea. And me – maybe I’ll really live on the edge and go see a Wayzata High School basketball game.
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.