The Big Life Lessons of a High School Play
Only stage lights are up at the Centre 2000 theatre, home base for Erin District High School’s drama program. Drama teacher Stephen Sherry sits behind a small desk, downstage centre.
It’s lunchtime. Behind the black backdrop, outside the double stage doors, a steady and eclectic stream of hopefuls gathers in the hallway, practising audition pieces for EDHS’s next production, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Among them is Isha Khaira. The 14-year-old Grade 9er has never tried out for a school play, but the lore of Sherry and his productions has been more than enough to help muster her courage.
Ahead of her, drama veterans stride onto the empty stage, chin up. They know the drill. Others shuffle in with a grin, as if following through on a dare. Some frosh, like Isha, glance shyly left and right in search of reassurance as they enter. Everything is new – the school, the teachers, and for Isha, even the idea of performing. Standard introductions ensue, and then that painful, slow-motion “how-do-I-begin” pause.
After four decades of performing in, writing for, and directing young people’s theatre and high school drama productions, Sherry might interject with any manner of directorial prompts. Instead, he smiles casually and says just this: “Do whatever you feel like doing.” And Isha does exactly that.
What follows is her portrayal of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, then an a cappella number from Les Misérables that leaves Sherry and the smattering of senior students in the darkened auditorium impressed. For her efforts, she will land the role of the White Witch’s Dwarf.
More important, however, is that Isha’s choices for her audition are her own. Like everyone in this cast and crew, she must take ownership of her own journey. This concept is a pillar of Sherry’s leadership style, which places personal growth before polish and infuses every EDHS production with lasting life lessons. In this age of reality talent shows that obsess about “the total package,” Sherry and teachers like him are the anti-Idol, the every Voice, revealing year after year how just participating in the arts can be transforming for anyone.
“Mr. Sherry is the definition of a true teacher,” says Grade 10 student Taylor Swindlehurst, who is cast as Lucy. “He wants you to succeed not only on the stage, but as an individual in life.”
“You give him respect. He gives you respect,” says senior student Emily Graetz, who plays Susan. “It’s the best kind of relationship you can have with a teacher.”
As for Sherry, he says his role as director simply enables him to interact with students in a more accessible way than in a formal classroom. Still, he says to achieve the trust and comfort engendered by a positive creative environment requires setting the tone up front. “There’s playing a bit of bad cop to start – setting clear boundaries and expectations is important if you want to help kids be healthy in themselves, responsible and good citizens,” he adds. “Once they get that, we’re all on the same cart and we roll together. No one is left behind.”
Indeed, everyone who tries out for an EDHS production gets a part. This year, that means a double cast of 52, along with about 20 behind-the-scenes crew. And rookies soon learn that this is no casual commitment. “Some are surprised – we are such a strong community. We are all here by choice to achieve something. We are here to evolve and become something more than we were,” says Grade 12 student and drama veteran Jessica Bertrand, who won the role of Lucy. Fellow senior Tori Bennett, who plays the White Witch, adds, “Our drama program is demanding, but it’s not just for artsy types. I’m an arts student, but I love how anyone can have the benefit of being involved.”
EDHS productions attract kids from across the student body of about 600. Some years nearly one in six students has joined in the play. This year’s stage manager Tori Ridley is a competitive dancer and athlete who first signed up to choreograph a production after being sidelined from sports by an injury. Kyle Junghans had long related to the character of Peter, in his younger years even adopting the catch phrase “For Narnia!” Elsa Cicchini, a former dancer and now one of Sherry’s assistant stage managers, first joined drama to build her self-confidence. Duncan Alderdice was drawn to the idea of working with new people.
Despite students’ wide-ranging ages, backgrounds and plans for the future, Sherry says bonding among the group begins quite naturally. “Kids start to take ownership of their roles. If they see someone lagging behind, they offer to help practise singing or work lines over lunch. They start to see the experience as bigger than themselves.”
Ask the students, however, and they’ll insist this deep sense of ownership doesn’t just emerge. Sherry instils a sense of personal responsibility at every turn.
It’s early January and a group of students are spending another lunch period in a windowless auditorium. Cast members playing Peter, Lucy, Susan, Edmund, Beaver and Mrs. Beaver gather onstage for a characterization workshop, a chance to try on their new roles for size, to find inspiration.
“Double casts are tricky,” says Sherry. “They need to be managed so they don’t become competitive. You want them to learn and borrow from each other, but ultimately think of creating the end result together.”
Elly Fuller, as Mrs. Beaver, begins: “You’ve come at last! To think that ever I should live to see this day!”
“Good,” Sherry interjects. “Now, think of something a bit bigger, more comedic. Think of your own take on, say, Mrs. Doubtfire. See what comes to mind.” Fuller tries again, broader and funnier in her delivery. And so it goes, with Dexter Adkin playing Edmund, Brett English as Peter, and the rest. Their director sums up the session with one key note, “Your process of working on your role should be pretty organic. Constant change and development are integral to your finding the character.”
What you’ll never see is Sherry imposing on actors what he would do with a character. “Life is all about choices,” he reflects. “Some choices we make aren’t the best, and some are. It’s going through that journey together and giving students a safe opportunity to try that on.”
He speculates that this philosophy may not make for the most polished end result, then he reframes: “Our productions probably won’t be the cleanest, but they will be very, very good because when kids are really trying hard and gelling as a team, performances and creativity come out that you’d never expect.”
A few examples. The EDHS post-apocalyptic reimagination of Macbeth won a Classical Theatre Project award for costuming and sets. Their Fiddler on the Roof featured a performance of Tevye that some say bested the Mirvish production starring Harvey Fierstein, which was playing at about the same time. (I saw both; it did.) Their staging of village life in pre-revolutionary czarist Russia was also strikingly close to the professional production.
Critical to students’ owning the whole process, however, is also owning the mistakes. “Mr. Sherry is the first one to accept an apology, help you understand what went wrong and how to move on,” says Swindlehurst.
In a past production of James and the Giant Peach, for example, the actor playing James mixed up a line, catapulting the dialogue forward 20 pages, which amounted to half the script. Horrified glances filled a pregnant pause as the onstage cast silently determined their course of action.
Their decision? Keep moving forward. Off-stage, sharks and cloud people scrambled out of one set of costumes into another. Only one of five seagulls, and that one missing a wing, made it on cue, and in no time the audience was filing out of the theatre, puzzled by how short the production was.
“I did suggest afterward that if it happened again, they might go back and keep things on track,” Sherry smiles. “But every show has one of those tense, fist-clenching moments, big or small. You just sit back and pray they’ll get themselves out of it. And they always do. In this case, oddly, the story still worked. They made it work.”
Behind all the successes and occasional near misses, Sherry emphasizes there’s an equally important production team developing sets, working sound and lights, and doing whatever it takes to create the world onstage. Here, too, veteran students jump in to mentor newcomers, passing on the technical ins and outs of their professional-quality theatre facility. Sherry confesses to having a soft spot for his behind-the-scenes crews, knowing how hard their job is and how unrecognized the work often goes.
“My relationship with my production team is always something special,” he says. “More than with actors and their hectic rehearsal schedules, we’re often able to sit down one on one to plan and create. Today I met with Jessica Bertrand, who’s passionate about set design. I’ve had a strong vision for this production since last year, but I had to put that on the back burner and keep an open mind. After hearing her ideas today, neat things that I had not thought of, we’re changing the direction of the production. It was a cool process.”
It’s another drama lunch devoid of natural light. Tori Bennett, Isha Khaira, Jessica Bertrand and Taylor Swindlehurst sit cross-legged in a circle, stage left. They’ve been to share student perspectives on their drama program for this article. From the very first question, it’s clear that they feel immense, self-imposed responsibility to convey the bigger truth of their experience. With eloquence, sincerity and little prompting, they wax philosophical.
Jessica expounds on drama as self-exploration and her journey from being the “shy girl at the back of the room” to leading lady. She explains how Sherry responds to each student as an individual and adapts to his or her needs. Isha shares her thoughts on the power of “opening up” creatively, finding your own voice and encouraging others to do the same. Taylor explores the “common understanding” among their diverse drama community and how “that spirit reaches throughout the whole school.” And Tori describes the joy of working alongside students she never thought she’d see in a production, then marvelling at their talent. Only the bell signalling the end of lunch curtails the conversation. This group is inspired and inspiring.
In the parting moments, Taylor sums things up. “There’s always one teacher in your life who you’re going to remember because of something that they did for you. That’s Mr. Sherry.” Others nod in agreement. “Far beyond a drama teacher, he’s a role model. You want to be like him.”
Sherry says he had teachers who did the same for him. They led by example, letting him make mistakes and learn from them. He says his mother also instilled a deep sense of service and giving back. It seems likely that his students will also pay it forward in some way.
The vast majority, however, will leave drama behind after graduation. They won’t have more chances to build sets, make costumes, work lights, run lines, sing centre stage or workshop characters for productions like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Macbeth, Footloose, Dracula, Tommy, Nine to Five and others. What they take away, however, might be just as rich.
“The arts in general are underestimated in what they do for students,” says Sherry. “No matter why they first sign up, I’ve seen drama empower students in so many ways: confidence, teamwork, lateral thinking, resilience, persistence – qualities that businesses in the real world look for. Speaking for all drama teachers, we don’t really think about it because it’s so intrinsic to how we work. We’re not good at blowing our own horn – I guess because in the end it’s not about us.”
After months of gradually pulling back, Sherry takes the final step before opening night. He calls this “releasing the show.” From this moment on, the show belongs to the stage manager, the crew and the actors. It’s all about them. It’s their responsibility to look at where they’re at, and come together as a team to make things work. Sherry smiles, “This is always one of my favourite moments.”
On May 9 this year, closing night will likely go as it often has at EDHS. A stealth black-clad production crew will work their magic with sound and light. Actors, savouring each last moment onstage, will bare their souls in full-throttle performances. When they take their final bows, parents, friends, neighbours, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents will stand applauding, each connecting to 72 different stories onstage and off – maybe a junior who overcame shyness to take on her first speaking role, a loner who finally found a nurturing community, a tough kid who backed into drama only to unearth striking talent, the perennial star who discovered even deeper satisfaction as a mentor – and many more.
Their stories will swirl around the theatre in this heady culminating moment, the climax of months of collaboration, creativity and commitment. Finally, students will beg Mr. Sherry to take the stage for a bow. Instead, he will likely wave briefly from the shadows. After all, this will be their moment. He wouldn’t have it any other way. ≈
Erin District High School’s production of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe runs May 6–9 at 7 p.m. at Centre 2000 in Erin. A Saturday matinée takes place May 9 at 2 p.m. Adults, $10. Students and seniors, $8. Tickets are available at the door, in the school library (both cash only) or at Brighten Up, 67 Main Street, Erin (debit and credit card payments accepted for a small fee).
Curtain Up at Headwaters Schools
In the next couple of months, high school drama departments across the Headwaters region will stage their spring productions. These wonderfully diverse programs are shaping young lives in many important and different ways. We can support the transforming creative journeys of these dedicated teachers and their talented students while enjoying a great night out at any of these productions. Here is just a taste.
Orangeville District Secondary School
The key word for Michelle Grierson, head of fine arts at Orangeville District Secondary School, is inclusivity. With a background in dance, drama and expressive arts for people with special needs, Grierson often fashions productions that integrate both mainstream drama and dance students with the school’s significant population of students with special needs. These include high-functioning students, as well as some non-verbal students who use wheelchairs.
In her 22nd year at ODSS, Grierson launched this year’s theme, which explores dreams and reality, by read- ing to students the opening of the novel The Night Circus. She’s bringing in professional circus performers to train students according to their abilities. Some dancers will actually perform aerial acts. The show runs June 3 to 5 at the ODSS cafeteria. Tickets are available at the door: $6 for students, $8 for adults.
Mayfield Secondary School
At Mayfield Secondary School, teacher Joanne Bethune heads the drama section of the school’s acclaimed regional arts program. And what a busy program it is. Early March brought several one-act plays for the Sears Ontario Drama Festival. April 1 is Senior Drama Night, when Grade 12 regional arts classes perform two shows they have collectively written and produced. Performances start at 7 p.m. Tickets by donation at the door.
From April 23 to 25, Mayfield’s spring play features Blankets & Bayonets, written by grad Kelly Anderson. The first production by one of Mayfield’s alumni, the play is an original musical drama about war, survival and love. The time is World War I and the story follows the experiences of two fami- lies. The curtain rises at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors) may be purchased at the door or from students at lunchtime during the preceding week.
Finally, Junior Drama Night takes place on May 28, when students in grades 9 and 10 regional arts classes present four shows they have collaboratively written and produced. Performances begin at 7 p.m. Tickets by donation at the door.
Centre Dufferin District High School
Tanja Oomen, drama teacher and head of fine arts at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne, leads a strong student-driven program. Under her creative guidance, students this year are writing a script about mental illness. In an anthology format, the production will feature original student writing along with excerpts from existing scripts on the subject. Though this year’s show is a stark contrast to last year’s grand musical production of Jekyll and Hyde, Oomen and the students hope it not only captivates audiences, but also raises awareness about important mental health issues. Dates and ticket information are to be determined.
Westside Secondary School
Jennifer Hutchinson leads another strong student-driven drama program at Westside Secondary School in Orangeville with a production this spring of Thumbelina, adapted by Wade Bradford. The play was chosen by Grade 12 students, and at the helm are two student directors, Alannah Taylor and Kodi Hopkins, along with student stage manager Katrina Grist and student production manager Kaitlin Maggs. All four seniors are pursuing post-secondary education in technical production design. Thumbelina runs from April 29 to May 1. Tickets are $7 at the door.
Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School
Finally, Rob Ciccotelli, head of the celebrated drama program at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School, reports that he and his students were thrilled to perform Peter Shaffer’s hilarious farce Black Comedy in Los Angeles, California, during this year’s March Break. Co-directed by teacher Frank Adriano, the production took place March 17 at the Hudson Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Hall Drama is an internationally recognized dramatic arts department that has performed all over North America and Europe, garnering many awards and national media coverage. Hall productions have been performed in London, England, in Macerata, Italy, off-Broadway in New York City and at Stratford Festival. Covered by national media, their original musical, In the Pink, explored breast cancer amongst teenage girls and was performed at the New World Stages in New York City.
Ciccotelli says the school’s productions have sold out venues as large as 2,300 seats and performed in some of the most prestigious professional theatres in Ontario, including Winter Garden Theatre and Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Rose Theatre in Brampton, the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga and Orangeville Opera House. George Stroumboulopoulos is among Ciccotelli’s alumni.
Unfortunately, Hall Drama’s performances of Black Comedy for this year’s Sears Ontario Drama Festival took place in early March. Next year, Hall Drama has been invited to perform at the International Festival of Theatre in London, England. Keep an eye out for updates on the school’s superb productions.