4 February 2022
It could be something about the lights. Maybe hearing the cheers of the audience, or being on the stage high above the ground. One way or another, every year students are drawn to Atholton’s auditorium, and end up auditioning. And despite all odds, they will do anything to get back under the spotlights.
For the first time in almost 3 years, Atholton is having its Spring musical.
Every year, schools in Howard County all perform a Fall play and a Spring musical. Atholton’s drama department returned to in-person theater with Macbeth, a dramatic and tragic tale of death and betrayal. For the Spring musical, The drama department has chosen to do Hairspray, an upbeat musical about equality based on Baltimore in the 60’s.
The choice in musical is not intentionally a drastic tonal shift, though. Atholton has been trying to get Hairspray into production since early 2020. “Trying to get closure from that is what we’re about,” said Atholton Drama teacher Mr. Nathan Rosen. Mr. Rosen decided to do Hairspray 2 years ago, feeling confident in the skills of their cast. He thought it was coming together very well as they approached closer and closer to the first show date.
“…And then it didn’t happen.” Covid-19 hit, and schools were forced to close down in-person learning for several months. Once Mr. Rosen was able to return to the building physically, many of the original cast members had moved away or moved on. Despite this, he found himself reinvigorated to complete the play, “ My thought there was that a number of people (who were in it before) have the opportunity to do the show again, and probably not play the same role. They’re all a little bit older, and have skills they didn’t have before. Sometimes through the theater department people move up from minor roles to bigger roles.”
Mr. Rosen has used the opportunity to sort of re-do Hairspray and implement some small changes in how the audition process will be done,“…We have a different music director than we used to have. Mrs. Carolyn Freel, our new choir teacher, will be teaching the songs and teaching the ensemble, and she will also be conducting the pit. It’s been a while since we’ve had involvement from the music department, so that’s very exciting.”
Mrs. Freel confirms further changes made to the audition process; instead of letting students choose any song, they are encouraged to select a song from the musical. “That way, they can spend more time preparing and less time with the logistical stuff…hopefully they can focus more on giving a quality audition.”
Needless to say, a lot of changes are happening in the theater department.
Change is also a big theme for many who have decided to join, or rejoin, the theater community through Hairspray.
Sophomore Lily Bonilla, for example, sees the current auditions as a chance to, “For once in my life…actually put myself out there.” Bonilla has enjoyed musical theater since childhood, but because of their stage fright, has had a hard time opening up and getting larger roles. She always found the spotlight somewhat threatening, but have come back to theater, excited by the chance to do a musical that they have experience with, “I’ve watched it as a kid, so I’ve always known all the words to all the songs…I’ve always liked the musical…So, I saw we were doing it and I was like, ‘Ok! I know this thing.’” Bonilla hopes to aim for a larger goal; a main character instead of the usual ensemble role.
Freshman Gerson Bercian echoes Lily’s sentiments, despite never doing a musical before, or perhaps, because of it, “One of my friends…she got me into musicals over the whole Quarantine thing…I started to really get into acting and getting into performing. So I always thought, `If there’s a play in my highschool, I will audition for it.’ ” His theater involvement began early this year, when he was cast in Macbeth as one of the murderers. Needless to say, Bercian was surprised, was very unsure that he would get any part at all. As someone who was both new to Atholton, and acting, it felt like a large leap for him. He decided early on that if he didn’t get into the play, he “might drop it” entirely.
Fortunately for Bercian, he was able to get cast in Macbeth, and though he first met the whole process with apprehension, was able to become accustomed to live acting. “I was pretty excited, because I was like ‘Oh, this could be fun, this could be interesting.’”
Doing Macbeth gave Bercian confidence in his acting, and he decided that he wanted to move onto the Spring musical. Gerson admitted that Hairspray isn’t his favorite musical, however, “…I’ve seen the movie once, so I vaguely remember what happened. Other than that there’s not a lot of things to draw me into it besides [it being] a musical and I’m excited to do it, because I want to perform.”
Bercian is not the only one to feel indifferent about the musical itself. Senior Alissa Suser, who has been doing musicals and plays since the 3rd grade, concedes that the main reason she wants to audition is because “I’m a senior and this is my senior musical.” and sees it as a sort of ‘last hurrah’ before she graduates.
“It’s not really my favorite show,” said Mrs. Freel on the matter. She herself cares more about engaging in the Spring musical, and being able to introduce herself to Atholton’s performing arts community.
“When we went away for quarantine I wasn’t necessarily sad. When I found out I was doing the show again I wasn’t really that excited, but I am excited to finish what we started.” commented Suser. For many seniors like her, it is more important because Hairspray will be her final highschool musical.
To some, the play could be considered outdated and irrelevant to current issues. Mr. Rosen disputes that although the play is a lighthearted take on racial issues, it is “still very much about those racial issues.” With the social climate and activism that happened in the summer of 2020, Mr. Rosen felt that it was not just a play people would enjoy watching, but something that they may resonate with.
Bonilla agreed that the play meant a lot to her personally because of how it talked about racial issues. “I think it’s good that we’re doing it because these things are still going on, even if they’re not as bad as it was [in the past].”
Overall, the resounding conclusion is that students are excited to audition for Hairspray, in the most part, for its community. Community is a big aspect of musical theater. Since school has started, the performing arts community has quickly expanded from its size during digital learning.
The first in-person audition for Hairspray, held on the 13th of December, was a far-cry from auditions online. The auditorium was warm and bright, and the students felt similarly. Experienced Senior captains taught students the dances, giving them ample time to learn a few moves before they got up on the stage for the actual audition. While they got everything together, students connected, talking and laughing about this or that. They further got to know each other through improv scenes, in which they paired up with each other randomly and created a scene based on a single given line. Performances were met with encouraging cheers, claps, and laughter.
Despite the positive turnout of the initial audition, Larger circumstances changed the course of the rest of the auditions. On the following day, a spike in Covid cases led to the school’s temporary shut down of after-school activities. Auditions from then on had to be done digitally, uploaded to Google Drive or Youtube and sent to Mr. Rosen. Further callbacks in January also had to be done online, and a few digital hiccups were faced, like stutters with connection. Though the cast were able to keep their spirits up, the new paradigm proved challenging; likely with the fate of Hairspray being questioned once more. But actors go about this in different ways.
Sophomore Eva Mendoza believes that in-person schooling and drawing attention to theater are more useful, “because we can put posters everywhere, and it’s on the announcements…after Macbeth people can come and see the show, in person.” The effect, Mendoza emphasized, is very important for the theater community.
“The crew,” in Bercian’s opinion, has been a highlight of being in theater. “I’ve had lots of fun with ever since Macbeth…they’re all amazing.” He said. As a cast member, seeing the people working behind the scenes and helping with the project provided a sense of community to him. Through Macbeth alone, he was able to meet many new people.
Senior Ishan Goswami thinks of theater like a sort of second home, attributing “some of the three best months of [his] life,” onstage with his friends 2 years ago.
“I look at auditions as opportunities for students as well.” Ms. Freel prioritizes connection with students during the auditions, and helping them try something new. She wants to “give them something that they can carry forward with them, that will help them in the future. Whether it’s academically or musically,” or anything else.
“Don’t be nervous,” is Goswami’s main advice to newcomers, or anyone wondering if they should audition next year, “If this is something that you want to do, follow it. I know this sounds really basic, but it’s some of the best advice that someone can give…Don’t be afraid of what people have to say.” Though he was once very self-conscious in his acting, Goswami said he found a lot of confidence and support through acting, especially from the department leader himself. “If Mr. Rosen seems a bit scary, one day if you become some big-shot actor and meet Christopher Nolan he’s going to be terrifying.”
“Seriously,” Goswami said, “it’s great.”