MIHS drama program focuses on art, craft, morality

Despite smaller casts and a lower budget, the Mercer Island High School drama department stays very competitive in local competitions and focuses on learning about art, rather than producing elaborate productions, says Karen Campbell, drama teacher.

While other area high schools might boast expensive musicals and plays and hire professional choreographers and musicians, Mercer Island High is more interested in teaching the importance of the artistic aspect of drama.

In a recent Seattle Times article, “High-school musicals: big casts and big bucks,” the newspaper compared the differences in the “traditional” high school musical to a new trend showing up in area schools. While the average high school musical costs about $10,000, schools such as Bishop Blanchet in Seattle and Shorecrest in Shoreline have recently produced shows costing $60,000 and $38,000 respectively, according to the article.

Campbell says MIHS pays its own way. There is no extra funding and ticket sales are intended to fund the program. Campbell explains that the drama department is not interested in a generic show. She wants to teach her students about the art that goes into a show and the hidden meaning behind each play.

Sophomore Jeremy Howell, 16, says he came to the drama department after years of playing sports because it is more rewarding and welcoming. “This drama department really stresses arts and teaching versus a production simply for entertainment value,” he said.

According to the Times article, for schools that have the funding, much of the work done is done by professionals. A fight choreographer was hired at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, and local professional musicians were hired for a recent Kentridge High School performance.

“We’re a really close group here; people bond after working on a project like this,” said Howell. He believes that having large casts and using professionals would not be right.

Campbell says she wants the shows that her students perform in to have a message. According to Howell, the plays he has been involved in over the past two years have been less famous, but provided a good, moral lesson. One such play was “God’s Country.”

“The play was really controversial, but we got the whole school involved by doing short performances in classes. It was a good way to get the play’s message across,” he said.

God’s Country is a play by Steven Dietz about the hate of a white supremacist group in the Western United States in the 1980’s.

Each year, the 5th Avenue Theatre of Seattle holds an awards ceremony in order to recognize outstanding work done by local drama students. Mercer Island High School is consistently recognized for its work. The MIHS musical productions have been nominated and been strong contenders for many awards. In 2006 the show “The Cradle Will Rock” was nominated for Outstanding Overall Musical Production. Campbell won the Outstanding Direction award for the same show.

Campbell says she is a strong supporter of the 5th Avenue’s awards. “All the kids feel empowered and part of something bigger because of the awards,” she said. According to her, this is one of the few ways for a drama student to get recognized. “The kids work just as hard as any sports team, but with little recognition; this is what the 5th Avenue Awards provide,” she said.

The school’s most recent production, “Anyone Can Whistle,” will also be reviewed for this year’s awards. A comedy about a small town in financial ruin and corrupt politicians, Howell says that while he enjoyed doing the play, it was a hard pay to do.

“The play was kind of wacky. It had hard rhythms and music, and dancing at the same time. The dialogue was also odd the way it was broken up,” Howell said.

Campbell has high hopes for MIHS in the 2007 awards. The last of the area plays are currently being reviewed and the 2007 awards ceremony will be held on June 4.

Anastasia Wassem is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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