“High School Play” Breaks the Local Fourth Wall

Revisiting high school drama means navigating a haze of fun nostalgia and repressed memories. I’m not necessarily talking about the drama of high school – for which it could serve as a metaphor – but rather theatrical performances enacted on stage. Many of us will never top our youthful sporting prowess, but most of us improve our public presentation skills as we age, or sidestep the issue by becoming mute hermits. Even some well-known professional movie actors are afraid to watch their performances.

Most of my theatrical performances are blessedly preserved on the scratchy late VHS era, just before social media brought issues of public and private selves to a new forefront. I was absolutely thrilled, however, that the current generation of young thespians at CG-HS have nothing objectively to worry about, as they performed joyously, hilariously well in last weekend’s production of “Just Another High School Play.”  The play itself also surprised me in how well it serves as a tool for understanding our relationship to art at both the mass and local levels.

The play itself – as its title implies – riffs on genre, being made of episodic sketches that cover 5,000 years of theater in five minutes; blow through all melodrama in 90 seconds; suggest that Shakespeare killed Christopher Marlow for mocking the comprehensibility of his writing; reimagine “A Christmas Carol” as a rap. In a tradition of high school drama, serving inclusivity, the play has a large cast and favors broad humor and iconic content.

In its frame narrative, the show plays with an idea of behind-the-scenes chaos, positing the staged enactments as resulting from an absent teacher, technical difficulties, egomaniacal assistant director, and a cast struggling to quickly read every available script they find backstage. As anyone who has ever put on a show would tell you, these are relatable fears, extensions of events that naturally happen in the chaos of creativity. My own high school theater left me with many very fond memories, including many that happened off-stage. That communal experience, of the process of production, the audience remains on the outside of, but “Another Play” thoroughly invites audiences into an imagined world of it.

The buzzword for this approach is “meta,” breaking the ‘fourth wall’, alluding to events outside of art’s direct display, breaking down the separation between what’s on stage and what’s off it. It can help to reveal how all art does similar things, how the big world of mass media – when enacted on the local stage – is always personalized. It’s usually at a medium distance: as I wrote, the audience may imagine what goes on backstage, but they usually have little direct access to it.

In a production like this, though, one is encouraged to wonder – as the characters do in a riff on “Our Town,” mainly its title – what is significant about a place? The production peppers references and joke apologies to a number of specific local folk, especially teacher Mrs. Morocle and [insert nearby rival town] Eagle Grove (apologized to ‘for the jokes going over your head.’).  The high wire act of the written script is how detailed it can make a joke before it risks alienating its audience: making claims about local environments that don’t ring true, or referencing mass art with which the audience may not be familiar. For example, a passing reference to 90s tabloid fodder Joey Buttafuoco is likely so much a historical footnote by now that even people reading the news then may not recall it.

As with any production, we form meta-connections of our own as we personalize our experience with it. Junior Zach Bell told me that he was cast as Romeo (or more technically, the role of an actor playing Romeo) after wandering into auditions by accident and being asked to perform opposite his girlfriend, who was reading for Juliet. I was amused that a nerdy character, a grad student, shares her exceptionally generic name with a good friend of mine from grad school. The cavalcade of British accents brings back memories to me, too. A Shakespearean riff on “whether it is nobler to live here, or rent until the market improves” has pressing local currency.

All artworks - be they the challenging-to-read Elizabethan English or local productions thereof – have their own times and places. The differences between our expectations and how we process them, on stage and off, offers room for humorous misunderstandings, jokiness, and reflection, especially as encouraged by an exceptionally good, specific – or even ‘just another’ – high school play.

 

Read more in the Mar 27 issue of the Wright County Monitor!