Student directors create productions exploring themes of life and death

February 15, 2023 — by Andrew Lin and Parav Manney
Photo by Emma Fung
Sophomore Cosmo Cooper and junior Ariana Tootoonchi rehearse “An Easy Heaven” on Jan. 19, two days before the performance.
Seniors Amrita Gopal and Dragon Neal worked tirelessly with their classmates since November to deliver a stunning viewing experience.

After an angel crashed through the roof of Toby’s house and fell unconscious in his kitchen, Toby rushed in with his family to inspect the clumsy bearer of news that could possibly change his life forever.

But the seemingly authentic antics that then followed between Toby and his relatives were an act; the kitchen was just a brightly lit stage in the Thermond Drama Center and the shocked family was really a company of actors running through their fifth take of “An Easy Heaven” by Eric Peter Schwartz, which played on Jan. 20 and 21. 

The scene was brought to life through the performances of juniors Caitlin Weber, Ariana Tootoonchi and Angelique Delacroix; sophomore Cosmo Cooper; and freshman Mia Ochiha, all under the direction of senior Dragon Neal, who uses they/them pronouns.

“If there’s something I’m looking for in a character, I’ll ask the actor to show me a certain emotion or think about who they’re playing in a different light,” Neal said. 

Neal started drama at age 5 and began conducting behind-the-scenes work as a freshman. From there, they learned valuable lessons, from operating lights to using sound equipment. 

Unlike “The Crucible,” the drama department’s last play, “An Easy Heaven” surrounds dark themes with comedic undertones. 

“I really liked the mixture of comedy and drama,” Neal said. “There’s moments of complete banter followed by angsty monologue and it’s cool balancing the two.” 

In the story, a boy becomes depressed due to the death of his father. When an angel crashes through his roof, he attempts to handcuff himself to  the angel’s wrist to reach heaven, thereby escaping his mentally torturous life. His friends and family, however, beg him to stay on earth. 

Neal wanted the audience to leave the play feeling hopeful and inspired, while also understanding that some people are always having a hard time and they should do their best to help them. The actions of the main character’s family and friends, who helped him after the death of his father and convinced him that death was not the best solution to his problems, are an example of this message.

“There’s always more in your life — more love that you don’t notice or appreciate until you realize it’s gone,” Neal said. 

Just four days after Neal’s rehearsal, a new company of actors gathered at the Thermond Drama Center under the leadership of senior director Amrita Gopal to rehearse “No Exit” by Jean-Paul Sartre. 

The cast included junior Arushi Maheshwar, sophomore Apollo Burgess, sophomore Kat Aldrete and freshman Milani James. 

Gopal’s interest in drama began in third grade, and she started participating in theater productions in middle school. Her interest in the art sprang from its diverse range of skill requisites. 

“I first got into drama because of the community, but I was just so impressed by how multidisciplinary the subject can be,” Gopal said. “There’s so many different things you can delve into, whether it’s acting, directing or any sort of technical field. I’ve been able to explore a lot of different things in my spare time because of it.”

Unlike Neal’s production, “No Exit” maintains a wholly somber tone. With its melancholic and existential tone, it deeply examines thought and the human condition.

The plot revolves around three characters who pass into a hell after death. But instead of being thrown into a fiery underworld home to demons, the group becomes stuck in a room together for eternity, torturing each other psychologically.

“I just really want people to consider morality — how we sometimes have a way of looking at the world in a very black and white way without considering the gray areas,” Gopal said. “I think this show really empowers the audience to peel back their own layers and think about whether what they’re doing is morally righteous or just a facade.” 

The directors have also considered the adjacent showing nights of their respective plays in terms of viewing experience. 

“We really are working in tandem,” Gopal said. “I’m hoping ‘An Easy Heaven’ offsets the sadness of ‘No Exit,’ making it more digestible with the humor.”

As students in Drama 4 Honors, Neal and Gopal worked methodically from Nov. 25 to bring their final project for their entire high school drama careers to fruition. They first started by creating their rehearsal schedules and recruiting people to facilitate changeovers (where the set pieces of one scene are replaced with those of another), operate stage lights and manage other technical positions. Afterwards, they programmed the lights, coordinated the sounds, finished the costumes and rehearsed their plays a final time on Jan. 19, in which the stage manager practiced opening the show.  

Benjamin Brotzman, the drama and stage tech and design teacher, said he believes student-led productions such as these benefit everyone involved. After four years in the drama program, the veteran students have acquired the skills necessary to transform a script into a full-fledged, vibrant production. Leading dozens of actors, designers and artists is a huge responsibility — one that the directors were more than ready to undertake, he said. 

 “Everybody’s learning. Everybody’s trying to put their best foot forward and they’re not trying to be better than anybody else,” Brotzman said. “They’re all working toward the same goal and it’s a really fun opportunity to work with peers in that way.”

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