At Whitefish Bay High School, the stage is all set for the performances tonight and this weekend.
As you approach the stage, to the left is a cozy dining room set, complete with a table and fireplace. Off to the right is a table set for tea and a trellis. Students wander in and out, rearranging chatting, straightening. Lights are being adjusted. The stage is dazzingly bright one moment, in near darkness the next. The students barely notice and continue talking and rearranging. The activity is all part of the mostly invisible effort required to bring even the smallest, most obscure play to life. Small wonder then, that it’s stage manager Anna Aschliman who proudly declares herself a diva, not the actors.
The production is "Dancing At Lughnasa", a 1990 play set in 1936 in Ireland. The play tells the story of the five sisters in the Mundy family: Kate, played by Alicia Nelson; Rose, played by Michelle Desien; Agnes, played by Savannah Armstrong; Maggie played by Katie Bentley and Christina, played by Stella Mayerhoff. The unmarried sisters live together in a cottage and struggle to make ends meet. In addition to winning several Tony Awards, the play was also made into a film in 1998 starring Meryl Streep.
Two high school seniors, Jesse Stone and Chris Desien, composed original music to be used in the show.
The force behind the production is director (and technical director and producer) John Coleman, who is also a teacher, auditorium manager, and advisor to the Drama Club. does two shows a year, plus a musical. He finds the rehearsal process to be the most fun.
“Once the show starts, I’m done,” Coleman said. “For me, it’s seeing them (the students) develop our rehearsal process.”
He says the students are the ones who build the sets and do the work, and contribute a great deal of time and energy.
“These kids are coming off full days of school, and they are incredibly busy, but they love it,” Coleman said. “They find the time.”
Time is certainly not the least thing they contribute. One rehearsal lasted until 10:30 at night.
It’s quite a different experience from their previous play, "Anything Goes." The students went from a crew of 50 to 25, an entirely different type of set and characters, and from a musical to a character study. Many of them are onstage for the entire play. They had to memorize lines that functioned as a kind of flowing conversation throughout the play.
That conversation, particularly the Irish accents, proved the biggest challenge. When they heard there was an Irish dance group in the area, they managed to bring in the director to give them lessons on how to perfect their accents. It was the first time they’d had to bring in outside help.
Still, many of them prefer the close-knit atmosphere of "Dancing at Lughnasa" to "Anything Goes."
“It’s been very nice because we’re such a small group,” said senior Stella Mayerhoff.
Interestingly, "Anything Goes" was actually part of the reason this show was chosen.
“Coleman’s epiphany moment was a song they played on a radio (in the play) was 'Anything Goes,'” said stagehand Michael Felland.
At the end of Wednesday night's dress rehearsal, the cast put on a preview performance geared especially for the students’ families. Before the show, the audience is asked to turn cell phones and other devices off. The request is ignored. Camera flashes from proud family members punctuate the performance.
The play runs this week only, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Tickets are $5 and are only sold at the school’s box office one hour in advance of the show.