As the cab pulled into the driveway, I got a glimpse of a sign propped against a telephone pole, starkly gray, black and white. On it were the typical details of any theatre production: the company, the dates and times, the title of the show, the website. Depicted was a single leafless tree, suggesting perhaps Waiting For Godot, or Spoon River Anthology, or maybe even a spooky Halloween attraction. I knew the show I was headed to was going to be a heavy one, so the foreboding promised by the sign wasn’t inappropriate; it followed a dictum I believe in strongly, which is truth in advertising. I just didn’t expect this for a high school play.
The play in question, about which I knew next to nothing beyond a website marketing synopsis, was Infinite Black Suitcase by EM Lewis, a playwright new to me. It was being done as a “major black box production” at Staples High School in Westport CT, a school whose theatre program I have heard about for literally decades, knowing kids and parents of kids who had at one time or another been connected with the school. While challenges to other high school plays have taken me to other towns in Connecticut – Waterbury, Woodbridge, Trumbull, Milford – I happened to meet the head of the Staples drama program when we served together for one year (two meetings) on an advisory committee for Samuel French, the theatrical licensing company. So I’d been keeping an eye on what he was up to, even as more pressing issues in high school theatre took me elsewhere.
Had I visited the Staples Players website and found they were doing Twelve Angry Men/Women/People/Jurors or To Kill A Mockingbird, I might not have been so quick to head to Westport along with the commuter crowd on their way home on Thursday night. But the online description of the play, not out of character with the school’s past repertoire, about various residents of an Oregon town dealing both with impending death and the aftermath of prior losses seemed so incongruous in a high school setting – even a high school with a 200 seat black box in addition to a spacious main auditorium – that I had to go up and see for myself.
Before going, I looked up the playwright, wondering whether the author wrote specifically for high school productions, and discovered that she has a number of professionally produced works to her credit (the play premiered in Los Angeles in 2005) and that Infinite Black Suitcase was in fact receiving its high school premiere. This prompted me to ask Roth, who was directing the play with his wife Kerry Long, how he came to the play. He responded that the folks at French had put him on to it, as he had been looking for a relatively large cast contemporary play.
I attended the first of four performances, and until 10 minutes or so before curtain time, I wondered if anyone would be there, so empty was the parking lot and theatre entrance – as did some students who seemed connected with the show, milling in the hallway near the theatre. An audience did arrive, a bit tardy, filling the small theatre to perhaps a bit more than half of capacity. Once inside, the trappings of the school fell away and the environment resembled many an Off-Broadway house. Indeed, the fact that the theatre wasn’t completely full showed that challenging work is always a hard sell, regardless of whether it’s professional or academic. Of course, it was a school night.
Obviously my intent is not to review the play or production, but I can say that it met one criteria I declared important when I first started writing about high school theatre, namely that the work challenged the students performing in it. Playing (mostly) grief stricken adults mourning or anticipating death in a series of short, intertwined scenes, the students were “punching above their weight,” rather than merely romping through an entertainment that catered to their natural, youthful exuberance. The play also fulfilled what Roth had told me led to its selection, in that the 16 actors were a genuine ensemble, each afforded at least one “moment” in the 80 minutes to showcase their abilities.
Contemporary drama is hardly unknown in high school theatre, although it was outside of my own experience years ago. A quick glance at the Staples repertoire over many years shows that, as did the most compelling portion of Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High, in which high school students performed Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True. That said, in the Educational Theatre Association’s survey of the most produced high school plays, only one contemporary play makes the top ten: John Cariani’s Almost Maine (at number one). Surely Cariani’s play stands atop the list because while originally produced with four actors and lots of doubling, it easily affords the opportunity for a larger cast to play its many roles without repetition, expanding to meet the interest and needs of high school drama, where musicals with casts of 50 are far from rare. Cariani’s new play, Love/Sick, might well appear on the list soon.
The rest of the EdTA list is decidedly older plays, from public domain works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Importance of Being Earnest to American classics like Our Town, Harvey and You Can’t Take It With You. While I have affection for all of the plays which are most frequently seen, with a particular and deep admiration for Our Town, a play often mistaken for pablum when it is really a profound meditation on death, I do worry, as with musicals, that even as the canon of theatre literature grows, the majority of our high schools produce the same standards year after year, the experience at Staples, the popularity of The Laramie Project and Sokolove’s story of Levittown PA notwithstanding.
This may well be a byproduct of the downsizing of the American play. Ask any playwright and they’ll tell you how they have to craft their works for casts of four to six, preferably with a single set, in order to get them done; look at the most produced plays in America and you’ll find those small casts: Venus in Fur (two), Red (two), God of Carnage (four), Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (six), and so on. So when high schools seek to involve as many students as possible in theatre outside of musicals, they’re forced back to the days when larger casts were de rigeur. On the one hand, we can say that this only reflects modern trends in professional theatre, and students should work with the same expectations, but in practice small cast plays either deny students the chance to learn about dramatic ensembles or the chance to tackle new work.
I have to hand it to Roth for putting his students up to the challenge of Infinite Black Suitcase, although I suspect it’s unlikely to be come a standard work in the high school repertory. But I’m also pleased to know that it’s not the only option out there. Student-written plays, although typically one-acts, afford high schoolers the opportunity to take on work by and about their peers, although that’s not without its challenges, as cases in Everett MA and Wilton CT have shown. Lend Me A Tenor author Ken Ludwig premiered one of his plays, a holiday show, at a high school near his home. There is also a thriving subset of writing targeting the academic market, though it is wholly unfamiliar to me.
One model that I wish were better-known or, better still, duplicated in the U.S., is the one forged by NT Connections in England, in which the National Theatre commissions new works by major contemporary playwrights specifically for secondary schools to perform. This may give the writers a chance to work on a larger canvas than they can with works seeking professional production, while letting the students take on modern plays crafted specifically for them that aren’t necessarily simplified for them or condescending to them, by writers they well might be reading about in the culture pages. Though I admire the concept, I regret knowing very few of these plays; I can, however, heartily recommend Mark Ravenhill’s Moliere riff Totally Over You.
I must come back to one last aspect of the experience of seeing Infinite Black Suitcase at Staples High. In my experience as an audience member seeing high school theatre, plays or musicals, I am always in the position of watching a show I’ve seen before, in many cases more than once, its words and music well known to me. With Suitcase, my experience was perhaps closer to the majority of my regular theatergoing precisely because I didn’t know it. I wasn’t spending the evening just seeing how well the kids managed to perform a familiar tale, I was actively engaged in watching the play itself, since I had no idea what would happen next and, for me, the Staples cast – of students I’ve never met, and so have no reason to respond to with indulgence or affection – is forever linked with the play, as with any show when one sees it for the first time. For Infinite Black Suitcase, they are my original cast.
P.S. I continue to learn a great deal about high school theatre as I see more and write more and as readers respond to what I write. If you have other examples of high school theatre giving students the opportunity to take on challenging contemporary or even new work, I hope you’ll share it in the comments section below. Teach me, and share so that other students and teachers can learn as well.