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Students' involvement in theater about the journey

Nelson Oliveir, New Canaan News
Published 11:18 am, Monday, January 27, 2014

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  • New Canaan High School Theatre members Rachel Guth, left, and Avery Wrenn paint vases that will be used at their upcoming show Thoroughly Modern Millie on Saturday, Jan. 18. The girls and more than 50 other students meet after school hours and on Saturdays to build and design their own props and costumes. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    New Canaan High School Theatre members Rachel Guth, left, and Avery Wrenn paint vases that will be used at their upcoming show Thoroughly Modern Millie on Saturday, Jan. 18. The girls and more than 50 other students meet after school hours and on Saturdays to build and design their own props and costumes. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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There's a place inside New Canaan High School where one can find two shelves filled with about 80 trophies. No, they do not belong to the school's football or hockey teams.

Those trophies are just some of the awards won by the NCHS Theatre, an informal after-school program.

Despite not being in the school's curriculum, the group was named the "Best High School Theatre Program" in the Northeast region by the Stage Directions Honors Program in November.

"It's an honor to be named best theater program of a region, sure; but how good do you have to be to be named when you actually don't have a formal theater program?" a Stage Directions newsletter stated.

Each year, the honors program names six high schools in North America as the best in their region. Besides the Northeast, the program looks at theater groups in the Midwest, Southwest, Northwest, Southeast and Canada.

Avery Wrenn, 18, a NCHS senior, said the fact that the group is not an official program does not hold the members back.

"We all put 100 percent on all we do," Wrenn said. "The difference is, because it's not run by the school, it pushes us to do more work outside the school hours."

Most of the nearly 55 members at the NCHS Theatre put in at least 16 hours of work every week. The group presents six shows a year -- three musicals, a fall play, a festival of student-written plays and a fundraising performance.

"The kids learn by doing, after school and Saturdays," Dee Alexander, the NCHS Theatre drama coordinator, said.

All their hard work has been getting a lot of recognition since Alexander decided to enter the group into competitions in 2010.

When the group performed at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in Anaheim, Calif., last February, it returned with 17 trophies. In May, it received 25 nominations and won six awards, more than any other high school competitor, for the musical "Beauty and the Beast"' and the play "All in the Timing" at the Halo Awards at Waterbury's Palace Theatre.

Alexander said the town is geared toward athletics, so entering competitions was a good way "to make a statement about the program."

Rachel Guth, 17, also a senior, said another advantage is that students take the work seriously.

"We don't think of ourselves as a high school theater program. I always think, `I'm going to rehearsal,'" Guth said.

When students are not rehearsing, they're making costumes, designing props and building sets from the ground up. Alexander said they rarely rent anything for their shows.

This season's productions include "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Little Women."

The NCHS Theatre is not just for actors, however. There is a variety of tasks students can do even if they don't want to be on stage.

"What makes our program unique is that whatever you want to do, we have," said Guth, who won first place for best 11th-grade soloist at last year's Anaheim competition.

Wrenn, for instance, is a stage manager. Other positions include staff designer, choreographer, assistant directors, among others.

Six out of the 14 seniors in the group are planning to pursue a career in theater, Wrenn and Guth said.

Many of the program's alumni are now successful theater professionals. Christian Libonati, who graduated in 2003, is a professional actor and managing director at Filament Theatre Ensemble in Chicago. Katie Oxman, class of 2010, became a professional equity actress last year. She's graduating from the Point Park's Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh in 2014. Another alumna, Kate Bodenheimer, has filmed two pilots for ABC -- "Mistresses" and "The Smart One." In 2010 and 2011, she worked as a production assistant at the Golden Globe Awards.

The NCHS Theatre has put on some large productions. Patricia Oxman, Katie's mother and one of several parents who volunteer for the program, said the group has gone as far as "flying" students during a show and having a Ferris wheel on the stage.

Wrenn and Guth credits Alexander, who they consider a mentor, for setting the program's bar "very high."

"We hold ourselves to high standards," Guth said. "At the end, it's stressful, but it makes us proud."

Alexander, who's been coordinating the NCHS Theatre for 17 years, said the group comes up with its own funds through a fundraising show, but students also conduct tag sales and car washes throughout the year. She said she believes the program eventually will be part of the school's curriculum.

"In time, it will be," Alexander said. "It should be."

Guth, who will be the leading character in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in March, said the program has completely changed her life. "Theater made my life inexplicably better," she said.

Alexander said students in the group are "learning skills that are life lessons" and that the program is about more than just what happens on the stage.

"It's not only about doing a show," Alexander said. "It's about the journey to get there."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson