Just before 5 a.m. yesterday, Molly and I pulled into her dark, cold high school parking lot, active with working snow plows and assembling theatre kids.
Then I watched as the students and their fearless director boarded two yellow school buses for the 175 mile trek to LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
Last night, they performed a showcase of Mary Zimmerman’s Journey to the West and today Appleton North will compete in the Wisconsin State Theatre Festival’s One-Act competition, at which the school has earned an unprecedented 15 straight Critic’s Choice Awards.
How does one school manage such a run?
It starts, of course, with a gifted leader and, after 15 years with the program, North’s theatre guru, Ron Parker, only gets better. As we’ve written before, he coaxes such a high level of commitment from each participant in the theatrical process — performer, tech crew, and audience — that the shows routinely inspire awe.
It starts with Mr. Parker.
But, there’s more.
There are the students, who hurl themselves headfirst into the theatre program, sucked into a year-round vortex that spits them out occasionally for showers and meals, and then scoops them right back up again. The North Theatre season begins with a massive Haunted House, which allows wide-spread student participation and raises money for the program. Then comes One-Act competition season, when students work with their director to choose, cut, design, run, rehearse and perform a full show within 40 minutes, including set up and take down of an entire, multi-level set. At the same time this year, most of the students were preparing and rehearsing for the showcase performance. That’s two shows running at the same time. A much-appreciated one day of rest will follow One-Act season, then comes dance training and try-outs for the big musical. This year’s production of Mary Poppins will be magical, with flying nannies and dancing sweeps. The spring show, Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, will follow the musical, and, after a brief rest, the six-week Summer Shakespeare program begins. Improvedy, the school’s improvisational comedy troupe, performs throughout the school year.
But there’s even more.
There are the volunteers — parents, alumni, and friends, who paint, haul, build, sew, cook, sell, comfort, drive, fetch, and organize. A day ahead of yesterday’s yellow school bus brigade, rode three big trucks full of set pieces and driven by three theatre dads, all of whom used vacation days to help out. And I can’t say enough about the legendary Drama Mamas. Alumni commonly return to the school to help out. They, along with several parents and alumni parents, also drove to LaCrosse on Wednesday to help supervise tech students, and many more drove over yesterday and today to watch the shows.
The work ethic this program inspires last long after the last set piece is dragged into storage. Upon hearing they would advance to state, North’s theatre troupe stepped their rehearsals up a notch, incorporating the judge’s feedback and tweaking, revising and rehearsing right up until the final performance.
It’s a cutting edge theatre program that relies on good, old-fashioned values for its success — innate talent, hard work, teamwork, and a recognition that with commitment comes great joy.