At a time of heated partisanship and emotional discord gripping the country, American Canyon High School’s theater program hopes to facilitate the sowing of human connections and understanding during its upcoming season of plays and musicals.
The 2018-2019 season’s theme will be “Building Bridges, Not Walls” — a nod to the divisiveness in today’s discourse, but without promoting any particular political message.
“It’s about finding connections” especially right now, said ACHS drama teacher Summer Heartt. “There’s so many different ways of thinking, so many different religious beliefs, so many different skin colors.”
“We’re all humans when it comes down to it,” Heartt said. “It’s all about finding the humanity in each other.”
ACHS will produce five shows during the school year that address the ideas of division and connection among people. Some will be familiar stories, such as “Romeo & Juliet” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Others will be newer or less familiar theatrical productions: “Brainstorm,” “The Laramie Project” and “Bring It On The Musical.”
Senior Casey Cenal, co-president of the drama program and stage manager, said some people might see a production like “The Laramie Project” — about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 — as something with a political viewpoint.
“But we’re not trying to view it as that at all,” said Cenal.
Heartt concurred, saying all of the shows are “really not meant to be political. It’s in response to the division that’s out there.”
“People are angry and upset, and we would like to try to bring people together through theater,” she said. “I can’t think of a better art form to do that with because theater really is a moment where everyone is sitting together in the dark having an experience.”
Cenal added: “It’s like an escape.”
Heartt pointed out that shows like “The Laramie Project” will also serve as a good learning experience for her students trying to understand and fit into the various, and sometimes dark, roles.
“We call theater ‘empathy college’ because you really have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Heartt said. “Kids are learning all these different things through figuring out someone else’s world.”
“When we do ‘The Laramie Project,’” she added, “drama students are going to have to figure out how to portray these people who are hateful or people who are victims.”
The ACHS drama teacher decided to put on “The Laramie Project” for a couple reasons.
For one thing, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s murder in Wyoming, an event that garnered national attention and debate about gay rights.
Also, Heartt saw how Berkeley Repertory Theatre did their version of “The Laramie Project” a few years ago.
“It really is looking at all these different points of view,” she said. “It’s not holding one above all else.”
“But it is about a brutal murder of an innocent boy. It shows all the different aspects of the town, and how people reacted to it. It has a real potential to reach people.”
ACHS will put on another play with political overtones, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which is required reading for students. The production will be offered during the school day so kids from the high school as well as the middle school can attend.
“In this day and age,” said Heartt, “it’s even more important that we know more about the Holocaust” because many of the survivors are dying “and we have fewer and fewer of them to tell us the stories themselves, and there’s more and more deniers out there” refuting that the Holocaust even happened.
“It’s important to keep the stories alive,” she said, as well as Anne Frank’s message to the world.
“Even though she went through this terrible thing, she still had love for people, and that is a really positive message for kids,” Heartt said.
Students will also tackle the Shakespearean classic “Romeo & Juliet” as a one-act play. The story fits with the other productions because it is about “division and about what you can lose if you can’t see each other’s points of view. The stakes are high, and it’s about teenagers,” according to Heartt.
“Brainstorm,” which will be the first ACHS production, scheduled for November, offers a different kind of challenge for drama students.
“We’re creating the play somewhat,” said Cenal about “Brainstorm,” which was originally produced in London. The students will use the play as a “blueprint” but will write their own characters and stories.
A flyer developed by Heartt describes “Brainstorm” this way: “Inside every adolescent brain, 86 billion neurons connect and collide to produce the most frustrating, chaotic and exhilarating changes that will ever happen to us. Using up-to-date brain science to explain their actions and experiences, students will portray their real lives in a revealing evening of theatre.”
Heartt said the play will be “a big challenge.”
She chose “Brainstorm” because it offered a chance for her diverse students to try their hand at playwriting.
‘Something that matters to me a lot is that in theater, a lot of the writers, directors, producers, choreographers are white,” said Heartt. But “a lot my students aren’t. And even if my students are, you don’t see a representation of all different kinds of folks in theater unfortunately, writing and directing and doing all of it.”
Heartt pointed out that acclaimed playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda — creator of the hit musical “Hamilton” who is of Puerto Rican ancestry — is the exception rather than the rule on Broadway.
“We all know about Lin-Manuel, and we’re all super happy and proud of him, but we need more of that,” Heartt said.
“There’s more of that out there to be seen. All of my students — white, brown, black — they all need to have an opportunity to learn how to write” for theater, according to Heartt.
Finally, next spring, ACHS will tackle their second musical production — “Bring It On The Musical” — coming on the heels of “Bye Bye Birdie” this past school year.
“Bring It On The Musical” is based on a “silly, silly movie made in the early 2000s that they turned into a pretty great show,” Heartt said.
The musical will offer its own challenges, complete with cheerleading routines, stunts, singing and dancing all on stage.
Heartt has enlisted the help of a vocal coach to work with her performers “to get their vocal chords ready” and be able to really belt out the lyrics.
The production will be interdisciplinary and include help from the high school’s cheerleader coaches, and the music department will provide a live rock band for the show.
The school will offer performances spread out over two weekends, instead of the usual one weekend, to give parents, students and community members more opportunities to see the musical. That goes for folks in American Canyon and Napa.
“We would love to see more of the community of Napa come down and see our beautiful theater,” said Heartt. “I know traffic is difficult,” she added, “but it’s worth it, it’s worth the trip.”
“It’s good theater to watch.”