Centennial Thespians Make Their Own Fairy Tale Ending

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 1:55pm

by Tori Stukins, Community Relations Intern and University of Illinois College of Media Student

Community Relations Intern Tori Stukins follows the Centennial Playmakers on their journey to the Illinois High School Theatre Festival.

When the Centennial High School Playmakers performed their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella this past November, they expected the sun to set on their retelling of the classic tale.  Director and drama teacher Sue Aldridge had a greater plan for her talented troupe of student thespians.  She would apply to give them the opportunity to take their show on the road, or down the road, to the Illinois High School Theatre Festival at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Centennial High School is known for tackling several productions a year, from popular musicals such as The Little Mermaid Jr. in 2012 and Hairspray in 2013, to lesser-known pieces such as The Rainmaker.  While those who want to join the drama department do not have to be experienced or apply, members of the Thespian Troupe are required to complete 100 hours of theatre work in order to join and participate in both the theater and community in several ways.  They perform charity work and build sets, but the crown jewel is attending the annual Theatre Festival, which includes performances by other high schools and theatre workshops of various concentrations.

This past fall, Aldridge submitted Cinderella for consideration to be performed at the festival.  The local media covered the production thoroughly.  Not only did members of the cast get to perform on television, but they also appeared in costume at local preschools to read to children in character.  Students also volunteered at nursing homes and performed at Marketplace Mall.  Aldridge noted that community outreach was one of the many vital contributions to the show’s incredible turnout.

After building such strong community support for the show, it was only fitting that the story not end with the cast’s final bows.

Once the Theatre Festival application was filed and Cinderella was selected for consideration, representatives from the festival came to a see a special viewing of the play.  When the students were finished, they sat down with the representatives afterward for a talkback to critique their work and guide them to making the performance even better.  A response was then written to the representatives discussing why the production should go to the festival and how they would take the advice they were given to better the performance.

Aldridge describes the process as a “learning tool” for the students.  It gives them a chance to reflect on their artistic process and grow.  The decision came on November 22, 2014.  Centennial’s Cinderella would be performing at the Colwell Playhouse in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus.

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The action flashes forward to the beginning of the New Year, in which the cast and crew of Cinderella return to the school to re-mount the show.  This process involved re-learning and polishing the choreography as well as running the show as a whole as many times as possible before the big performance on January 9.

With the show originally running from November 13 through 16, the cast had some catching up to do.  Naturally, there were some hiccups along the way.

Starting Saturday, January 3, Aldridge and her thespians began re-working the show for the upcoming Theatre Festival the following Friday.  The initial plan was to get everything up and running for a free benefit show on Wednesday, January 7.  By Sunday rehearsal, the cast was down at least four people, including Cinderella, senior Grace Khachaturian, who had strep throat.  Some students were stuck in other locations due to traveling back to Champaign in the cold and icy weather. 

As the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  However, the real magic words for Cinderella come in the form of the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella’s duet “Impossible; It’s Possible.”  The musical number proves if you wish and work hard enough, even the most impossible things are achievable.  While the weather conditions and reduced cast might have made most schools nervous, the students of Centennial handled the situation with flair.

Honestly, it was hard to tell if it even bothered them at all.

“We are blessed with kids who would step up and do what needs to be done,” Aldridge says of her pupils.

The students had been doing just that.  Due to the number of missing cast and crew members, dance numbers had to be adapted and lines had to be picked up.  While this may elicit groans and complaints from most, Aldridge’s well trained, not to mention optimistic, thespians took on these new challenges without a sigh or even thinking twice.

Giggles were heard before they were called to places, and the kids raced around excitedly placing props, making last minute adjustments and warming up.

“Places please,” Aldridge begins.

“Thank you, places!” the cast and crew answer.

Just like that, the students disappear from sight, and the mood in the room shifts to one of seriousness, but at the same time, it is also thrilling.  While Khachaturian remained sick during a part of the rehearsal week, junior Andrea Cunningham stepped in as her understudy a little after 3:00 p.m. the Sunday before the show opened.  Although Khachaturian ended up being able to perform for the Theatre Festival, Cunningham focused a lot of effort toward filling the original Cinderella’s glass slippers.

Not only that, but the other thespians, as well as Aldridge, helped Cunningham along the way.  They guided her along the stage gracefully, filled her in on dance numbers and laughed off any awkward moments due to her just getting the script in her hands that afternoon.  Watching how incredibly well everyone worked together was heartwarming.

While exploring backstage during the rehearsals, I found myself greeted by welcoming students, who were happy that I took time out of my day to come see them.  For instance, I can now say that the Fairy Godmother personally thanked me for my time!

I spoke with a few students of both the cast and the production team and delightfully found no one in low spirits.  Each student’s mind was set on the task at hand and creating the best show they possibly could for the Theatre Festival.

Senior Brittany Fruehling juggles gymnastics and cheerleading but recently decided to get back into theatre.  She is part of the ensemble for Cinderella and expressed her great anticipation but also nervousness for the big finale at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.  When asked what the hardest part of the process was, Fruehling had an interesting perspective.

“You can have costumes, make-up and stuff like that, but it’s not going to be a children’s show until you add the magic, and I think that’s the hardest part,” Fruehling explains.

I followed up by asking if they had indeed done so, and the answer was unanimous across the board.  This was a true fairy tale.

Centennial’s production featured glass slippers directly modeled after the pair of Broadway fame.  Set pieces came together to make the Fairy Godmother’s famous pumpkin carriage that takes Cinderella to the ball.  The luxurious ball gowns worn during the dance scenes are also nothing short of magical.

Apparently, I am not the only one who comes away from the show with a mystical feeling.  Sophomore Christina Carty, while she typically performs onstage, performed in the pit for a theatrical production for the first time.  This was also her first time attending Theatre Fest.  Although she was aware that the move to Krannert would demand several adjustments from the cast and crew, she had no doubt they would do so with ease.

She also acknowledges the differences she has seen being in the orchestra pit playing keyboard as opposed to being onstage. 

“I know being in the cast is a lot more time demanding because there’s so many more components.  We do a lot in orchestra, but it’s different because we don’t have to worry about costumes or make-up or anything.”

When I asked how she would describe the show, she had a couple of insights.

“I would describe it as hectic, but outside the show, it’s pretty magical.  I remember watching shows when I was eight years old at Centennial and just getting this crazy feeling like, ‘This is what I want to do! I want to be a part of this!’”  Carty said with a grin.

The Centennial Thespian Troupe is the place to be, it seems.  From basketball players who have never done a show but stepped up fantastically to the stage to young children, anyone is welcome in a production.  In turn, they welcome and encourage each other.

Wednesday, January 7, was originally a day that would have held many things for the cast.  They were going to hold a free benefit show to raise funds to remount the show, which included costs such as moving the set pieces, rights for an extra performance and many others.  As if on cue, the weather swept up into a horrible frenzy that night, icing the roads and closing school for that day.

This turn of events was a sizable setback for Aldridge and her students, as they needed to raise thousands of dollars with the help of donations from the benefit show.  Since that did not happen, they were almost at a loss.  Aldridge claims they were really helped out by the generosity of parents of the cast and crew, as well as the school district itself.

One parent owned a moving company and was able to provide a truck.  They also worked out a deal with Krannert to swap percussion and lights, so the Centennial students could use their sound system for free.  There was also bargaining with the price of renting the show for an additional performance, as the content is protected under copyright.  It brought the price down significantly, but it was still quit a sum to pay.  Aldridge says they lucked out in the end as the district “graciously [picked] up the cost of remounting the show.”

“We owe a big thank you to Dr. Wiegand and the school board for their support,” Aldridge said.

Although the road was an icy and treacherous one, the students of Centennial at last made their way to Theatre Fest on Friday, January 9, marking a triumphant end to their tale.  Under the tutelage of someone with Sue Aldridge’s passion and perseverance, there was never a doubt in anyone’s mind that they were capable of it.  Positive attitude, flexibility and training played a part in getting this pumpkin to the ball on time. 

Despite jumping right into other activities following the completion of Cinderella, Aldridge looks back on her students’ performance at Theatre Fest fondly.

“All in all, it was a wonderful experience for the students.  Lots of work… but well worth it all,” she said.

With that performance, the clock struck midnight on this chapter of the Centennial Playmakers’ work.  They will be moving on to their next production, Bye Bye Birdie, in possibly a matter of weeks.  The theatre world never stops moving; however, the students definitely grew as artists from this experience, a Cinderella story in more ways than one.