On Friday March 2 and Saturday March 3, Park’s Upper Division (UD) theater ensemble proudly brought Mary Poppins! to the Park School community. Drama Department Head and UD faculty member Kyra Fries (director), Music Department Head Sadiemarie Mayes (music director), and Apprentice Ali Felman (stage manager) have been collaborating on the show since mid-fall. Pre-K teacher Betsy Platt designed the costumes and outside professionals designed the set and lights. Kyra Fries, who has overseen the theater program for over 13 years says, “This is the biggest production I’ve ever done in my life. There are 40+ students working on every aspect of this musical, not to mention all of the adults who are involved. Everything about this production is big – the acting, the singing, the choreography, the technology, and the staging. It’s really exciting!”
Kyra is quick to point out that bringing Mary Poppins! to life has, more than ever, highlighted the essential role that students who volunteer to do tech support, costumes, and set design have been absolutely critical to bringing this production to Park, as well as many others. She notes, “The production is much more than the actors. I think of it as a team sport. It’s only as strong as the people who are supporting the people on stage.”
Students have always had a certain amount of involvement in the technical aspects of the productions. Costume designer Betsy Platt invites conversations with each student as she begins to choose costume pieces for their various characters. Their comfort and portrayal of the character are essential to her design choices. Happily, involvement in the technical aspect of Park productions has increased over the past six years. While there is no official initiative or program for this involvement, it’s a fun and valuable way for students who do not wish to be on stage to participate in theater. Students find time during recess, TEACH, and after school to practice working the light and sound board, or to make props. For Mary Poppins!, students needed to make dozens of brooms for the chimney sweeps using dowels and pipe cleaners and painting them in the theater shop behind the stage. “It’s great design thinking,” Kyra states. “They feel ownership when they come up with solutions and make the props. Most high school and college theater programs run in this way.”
Students who take the opportunity to work in tech support often find themselves coming back for other productions during their time in the UD, having enjoyed the experience so much. Sixth grader David Wibiralske remarked, “I have done tech support before and I think it’s fun knowing there’s somebody up there on the catwalk making the lights flash or the doorbell ring. If you didn’t do this, you wouldn’t know about it.” Will Kelly (Grade VIII) added, “Tech is a great opportunity to be part of a production but not be main stage. Our support of the actors is vital to the success of the production.” And alumna Sophie Lewis ’17, recalls her time fondly: “Some of my favorite memories from my time at Park took place in the theater shop. Tucked away directly under the stage, many students who pass through Park’s doors never are able to discover this extraordinary room. It’s where all of the magic happens–where props, set pieces and costumes are carefully put together and make Park’s shows truly come to life. I was fortunate during my eighth grade year to not only be a part of some incredible shows, but to help out behind the scenes as a prop maker. For Park’s whimsical production of The Phantom Tollbooth, we spent hours laboring over a seemingly endless number of signs, letters, banners, and creatures, armed only with cardboard, paint, and quite a bit of glitter. But it was truly a labor of love, because each prop helped make the show more special for audience members and actors alike. Now, as I enter the world of high school theater, I am grateful for how these opportunities at Park inspire my love for technical theater and give me an inordinate amount of respect for all of the hard work techies preform to make each show as meaningful as possible.”
As I enter the world of high school theater, I am grateful for how these behind-the-scenes opportunities at Park inspire my love for technical theater and give me an inordinate amount of respect for all of the hard work techies preform to make each show as meaningful as possible.
~ Sophie Lewis ’17
Given the complexity of the Mary Poppins! Production, everyone has had to figure out how to organize props and costumes backstage in a way that will allow the production to go off without a hitch. And there are more than just actors in the production: “For the scenes ‘Feed the Birds’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite,’ we are using ‘puppets’ operated by the students. It’s part of the magic of this show! Puppetry is selfless, it’s all about making the puppets shine. It’s great to give students the chance to expand their acting repertoire.”
When a production wraps up, high school and professional theater ensembles typically participate in the “strike” or taking down of the set and storing of the production props and costumes and cleaning up. This year, students have started to participate in this process at Park, which has typically been done only by adults. Kyra explained it’s a great way for students to go through the learning curve of how this is done beyond middle school and to know it’s part of any production.
The Drama Department’s goal is to make sure students with all kinds of interests and skills are able to participate in theater. As Kyra notes, “Theater at the middle school level is not about making lead actors look good, it’s about collaborating to bring a great production to the community and making sure that kids who don’t want to be on stage are part of creating the art together.”