While hundreds of Chapel Hill and Carrboro students played in the snow, actors and technicians for East Chapel Hill High School’s Theater Department were busy improvising to keep their spring musical on schedule.
Students gathered in living rooms to practice lines, the crew worked to build the set and senior Ethan Fox trekked to the high school auditorium to finish the job he started last April.
Fox is the first student to be hired as a guest director for the ECHHS theater department, and was given a budget of $6,000 to lead a cast and crew of nearly 40 students in the production of the main stage show, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” opening tomorrow.
With one day until the curtain goes up, Fox said he has learned valuable lessons from his turbulent time at the helm.
“I used to take leadership for granted, but I’ve learned that it takes a lot of energy and you have to be really positive,” he said.
The ECHHS theater department is centered around the philosophy that faculty should provide the least amount of help possible, said department chair Hope Love.
“Any time we can get out of the way of students who are competent enough to do a great job, we get right out of their way,” Love said.
The musical comedy farce has provided opportunities for several students to try their hand producing or designing different aspects of the show.
“It incorporates all these aspects of theater — musical numbers with comedy and an element of mystery — into a single show,” said publicist and senior Ryan Pecaut. “So everyone has to come together to make it work.”
This sense of teamwork was more important than ever with the loss of 14 rehearsals due to snow days.
“The snow first happened on load-in and we lost five hours because they closed the school,” Fox said in reference to the day the set was assembled on stage. “We finally had rehearsal on the following Monday, but then the snow hit again, and it hit hard.”
Fox said the snow has changed his vision for the show, but input from his design team has made the show a collaborative experience.
“We wanted to order wallpaper for the mansion walls, but because we lost so much time, we just have to Mod Podge a design we printed,” he said.
Senior Abby Weaver designed the 1940s-style costumes and said the snow made it hard for her to shop for the specific materials she needed.
“I now have a better sense for the research that goes into design, especially with a piece like this where I don’t have as much leeway,” Weaver said. “So the snow was really frustrating because it made my job a lot harder.”
Along with the challenges of the snow, students faced other obstacles in producing their musical. Weaver said the nature of the show provided technical difficulties.
“It’s really an engineering challenge for me because every gag the show presents is a problem for me to solve,” Weaver said. “We’ve had to make suspenders snap in half and a book stick to someone’s back.”
Fox faced challenges of his own in learning how to lead a group of his peers.
“A lot of this was trial and error,” Fox said. “Finding out how to direct different people was challenging because everyone acts differently. Some people I’m harder on and others I have to nurture more.”
This technique resonated with senior Rick Paladin-Fernandez who plays the mysterious Figure in Black, opening the show with a murder.
“Ethan has a connection with everyone in the cast,” Paladin-Fernandez said. “He finds a way to relate to everyone — like with me, although I’m a minor character, he still spent the same amount of time with me and answered all of my questions.”
Sophomore Hayden Bressoud plays a flamboyant music composer and said he enjoys having a director who is also a student because he feels it gives the director a deeper understanding.
“Ethan has helped me a lot with learning how to stay in character,” Bressoud said. “He taught me some of the techniques he used, like saying your lines 40 different ways to see all the different choices you have.”
Fox and other seniors have balanced schoolwork, rehearsals and college applications throughout the extensive production process. He said that in spite of a hectic schedule, the opportunity to direct a show has reinforced his love of theater and his decision to pursue it in college.
“I’ve grown more decisive because as a director you have to make a lot of hard decisions,” Fox said. “And I’m definitely going to continue doing theater.”
With rehearsals after school from four to nine, Love said the long days are training for the professional world.
“Other schools have techies and actors against each other, but we have a program where we encourage them to cross boarders," she said. "We do both because that’s what it’s like in the real world."
Fox said he is proud of the collaboration that went into producing the show despite the snow days.
“Everyone really rallied and I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” Fox said. “Although I wish I had those two weeks back, I’m really happy with the way it’s coming together.”
Love echoed Fox’s sentiment and said the students have risen to the challenge of producing their own show.
“I’m not a high school teacher,” Love said. “I work with emerging artists who happen to be high school-aged.”
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