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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 23, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Heifers, High School Plays, Girls in Blue

A few weeks ago, my daughter and some of her friends held a yard sale for charity. It was a good way for them to clear out their closets (or bedroom floors!) of toys, clothing, and books they had outgrown.

The charity they chose to benefit was a surprising and delightful one.

It's called Heifer International. Their website at http://www.heifer.org tells much more than I can here, but in a nutshell, let me give you the concept:

You buy an animal for a family or farmer in a third-world country.

Check out the "gift catalogue" and you'll see what I mean. For $500 you can buy a milk cow for a family that then agrees that to donate the first calf from their heifer to another family in need. The result is an ever-spreading gift of fresh and healthy milk for family after family.

Of course, I noticed that their picture seemed to depict a heifer being used by an east Asian or American Indian family -- ironically, groups with a high incidence of lactose intolerance. But that's none of my business.

If $500 is too much, you can give a share of a heifer for $50. Or choose another animal. A water buffalo -- in some places the equivalent of a tractor -- is $250 (or $25 for a share); a sheep or a goat is $120.

Our group of girls chose to buy a llama (for $150), and they had enough left over to provide someone with a trio of rabbits ($60). The girls were old enough to deal with the fact that rabbits aren't raised for milk or eggs.

So the cute little fuzzy bunny picture on the website is misleading. Nobody's getting a pet. They're getting meat and fur.

When you're thinking of ways to teach your children about giving to charities, I think this is one of the coolest ones. If you aren't online to check the website, you can write to them at Heifer International, PO Box 8058, Little Rock AR 72203, or call 1-800-422-0474.

*

High school plays are not generally regarded as the highest form of theatrical art.

Of course, I've paid big ticket prices for professional plays that were scarcely better than your average high school production. I remember one miserable production of Three Sisters in which a trendy New York director managed to completely waste a very talented cast on a gross misinterpretation of ...

Wait. High school. That's what I was going to talk about.

Last Saturday I saw the closing night of Bye-Bye Birdie at Northwest High School, and a dress rehearsal of Into the Woods at Weaver Academy. A lot of very talented kids put their hearts into their performances and did themselves proud in both shows.

It happens, unfortunately, that both of musicals have very weak scripts. That's hardly the kids' fault. Those were Broadway musicals -- and the scripts were just as weak on Broadway.

For instance, Bye Bye Birdie, which opened in 1960, was a simple parody of the Elvis Presley craze, with characters that were paper-thin. Worse yet, because Chita Rivera played the adult female lead, "Rosie," the script makes a big deal about how she's Spanish. If they had cast Mary Tyler Moore, the script would have been tailored to fit her. But now every high school production in the world is stuck with all these jokes (and musical numbers) based on her being Latina -- even when there isn't a Latina kid in the cast.

But it's even worse. Star power wins -- therefore, the teenage leads are not on stage in the final scene. Why? Because the stars knew that the kids would steal the scene if they were there. The stars got the stage to themselves. But when a bunch of parents have come to see their kids in the show, it makes no sense for the teenager romancers to be left out of the climax of the show.

Into the Woods, on the other hand, is a Sondheim musical, which means (1) the music will be as difficult as possible, with nearly unsingable harmonies, and (2) the second act will open well, and then collapse in ruins as the writer gets so intellectual that all storylines are abandoned.

So ... why do high schools keep doing these very weak musicals?

Three reasons. The first is that stories ostensibly about teenagers (rock stars!) or that look like children's theatre (fairy tales!) are easy and obvious picks for the adults choosing what plays to put on.

Second, Birdie has three good songs ("Got a Lot of Living," "Kids!" and "Put on a Happy Face") and Woods gives fairy tales the kind of twisted interpretations that allows kids to feel that they're being "daring."

The third (and main) reason is even simpler: girls.

Roles for girls.

You see, in high school, far more girls than boys are interested in being in plays. That's just a fact of life.

It doesn't have to be, of course. I've been directing plays at the rate of about two a year for the past five years, most of them involving at least some teenagers, and I've found that if you make sure that the guys look terrific onstage -- funny and/or manly -- you'll have plenty of other young men vying for roles in your plays.

But for one reason or another, males are as scarce as hens' teeth in most school drama programs. While scripts keep calling for most of the actors to be male!

Bye Bye Birdie and Into the Woods have lots and lots of female roles. In fact, Birdie positively floods the stage with girls. So these musicals keep getting performed in high schools despite the long stretches of tedium or embarrassment that the scripts inevitably bring to the audience.

But come on. Everybody understands, before they buy a ticket to a high school play, that the production budget is near zero, the music is not going to be cast-album quality, and the actors, being young and only just beginning to acquire the skills of the stage, will not deliver every line well or earn every possible laugh.

The audiences are therefore generous. They clap even when the production is miserable.

Fortunately, these two productions were most decidedly not miserable. In fact, what astonished me was the depth of talent in both casts. It wasn't just a couple of leads who could sing or act -- there was talent throughout. Even people in very small parts did well with them. There was nothing wrong with the talent of these kids -- and some of them showed great promise.

Most of the problems that actually hurt the shows came from decisions by adults who were simply undertrained or inexperienced. In Weaver Academy's Into the Woods, for instance, the pianist was put onstage with the actors. And the only microphones were on the floor at the front of the stage.

You can't do that. Because the microphones will pick up the actors only when they are directly facing the front of the stage, while they will pick up the piano very strongly all the time. And the pianist had not been told, apparently, that "underscoring" is supposed to be softer than the dialogue, so he pounded away at fortissimo most of the time.

There's a reason they usually put the orchestra in the pit. Not just so the actors can see the conductor directly in front of them, but also so that the sound is substantially muffled in comparison to the voices on stage. The stage is a huge sounding board which helps project the actors' voices to the audience. But when the orchestra (or piano) is on the stage with the actors, then there is no relative advantage to the actors -- the instruments therefore have to be soft.

The result was that the piano filled the echoey room with so much sound that while you could hear the voices of the actors, you could not actually distinguish their words. Adult actors rarely have the voice to punch through a wall of sound like that.

Thus long stretches of the play are completely unintelligible -- though you can see (and almost hear) that some very talented kids are doing very well in their performances. Only one of the kids -- Cydney Swofford, who plays Little Red Riding Hood -- has both the voice and the skill to know how to be understood; several others have the voice, but don't yet know how to slow down and overarticulate in order to beat the piano.

Now, there's a very good chance that before Into the Woods is open to the public, they will swaddle that piano in thick layers of cloth and suggest to the pianist a softer touch, so its sound is in proportion to the rest of the show.

Northwest's production of Bye Bye Birdie had a different music problem. They put the orchestra out in the audience, but over on stage left. That was fine -- except that the actors were still dependent on finding the beginnings of their songs by looking toward the conductor. When the conductor is front and center, that's usually not a problem; but when they have to look sharply to the left to see him, that becomes obvious and distracting to the audience.

The real problem, though, is that high school bands and orchestras are still learning how to control their instruments. The most difficult instruments are those without a fixed pitch for most of their notes. Strings, having no frets on their fingerboards, are usually hopelessly off pitch in high school ensembles. Northwest had no strings in their group, but brass instruments are also vulnerable, and not just the trombones with their variable slides.

In this case, it was the trumpets that were excruciating to hear. No doubt the trumpeters were fingering their valves properly, but they had no lip control on the high notes where lip alone determines the pitch.

High school stage directors are often volunteers, and even those that have received training in college rarely had more experience than one directing class, for which they might have received a C, then a diploma, and then a career of directing young actors. I offer this not as criticism and certainly not as condemnation -- it's simply a fact of life in high school theater.

Even when directors work their hearts out and do every single thing they know how to do, you still get things like (at Northwest) many actors delivering some of their best lines toward other actors standing upstage of them, so the audience can't even see the face of the person speaking.

At Weaver Academy, which is the school where kids go in order to specialize in theatre, you would expect the standard of directing to be markedly higher -- and this year, at last, your expectation will be fulfilled. It's nice to see a well-designed set and actors being moved around on the stage with purpose, liveliness, and excellent focus.

(Of course, if they don't solve that piano problem, then their excellent, talented accompanist will, in fact, kill the show -- but that's precisely why I'm betting they get it right before opening.)

When we go to a high school play, though, we don't care about what the adults did. We're there because we know and like at least one kid in the cast. We're rooting for success. We'll bear all kinds of mistakes. We'll enjoy every spark of talent, even if such sparks are as rare as stars in the Los Angeles sky.

Yet when we do get truly excellent performances, we appreciate them the way a wanderer in the Sahara appreciates a bottle of chilled Fiji water. We love all the performances, but we recognize it when one of the kids is nearly professional in quality. Like Cydney Swofford in Into the Woods. And Ashlea Ross, who played Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie. They take the stage with confidence. Their voices are crystal clear. Every line is rich with all its useful meanings, and their faces are alive so that we can't take our eyes off them.

It's easy to say, Some kids are just more talented. But I know there's more to it than that. there are things that natural talent can do -- it can give a kid a great head start. But knowing your way around a stage is not talent, it's intelligent experience. These actresses are comfortable onstage. They know how to relate to an audience. They are in command of their performances. They are, in fact, professional, in quality if not in salary.

Since these skills are teachable and learnable, however, they are within the reach of more than just one kid per cast. But one can hardly expect high school drama teachers to be better than their own college teachers were. And in America, the teaching of stage acting is generally so weak, so crippled by ridiculous introspective theories, that it's a marvel anyone emerges from a drama program able to act at all, let alone ready to teach it.

So most kids, in most schools, still learn acting the way it has always been learned -- by picking stuff up whenever they can figure it out themselves. And if a drama teacher can at least manage not to give the kids hopelessly bad habits, each play they're in will give them that much more experience, and that much more opportunity to learn.

Acting is the only whole-body art. Dancers use the body, singers the voice, but actors have to do it all: movement, speech, singing. It's a lifetime's labor to learn to do it well, and each new role brings its own challenges. (Not to mention the fact that as you get older, the instrument changes and decays -- and you can't just buy a new one.)

Good actors make it look easy; perhaps one reason why high school theatre exists is to remind us that young actors, who haven't yet learned all their skills, show us just how hard it really is.

And when a play works, it's because everybody is working together, supporting each other on and off the stage. Far more than athletics, putting on a good play draws everyone together into a harmonious community despite the actual personal feelings that might exist among the cast. In a well-directed play, every individual gets at least a moment when they can shine, if they make use of it. And in school, kids can get cast in parts they would never get a chance to play as adults.

Both these local high school productions were excellent -- for what they are. I was impressed by a dozen kids at least in each performance. I was also impressed by what the directors and musicians were able to do, knowing the constraints under which they labor. I can honestly say that these are the two best high school musical productions I have seen in my 23 years living in Guilford County.

Too late for Birdie, but you can go see Weaver Academy's Into the Woods on 27-30 April, Thursday through Sunday, at 7 p.m. each day.

*

Mary Higgins Clark writes wonderful mystery-thrillers that are dependable in many good ways. The violence, while real enough in its presentation, is never graphic, never designed to shock. The language is clean enough for the most staid reading group to enjoy. And the storylines are always gripping, with people you can care about and a dependably satisfying ending.

Her latest, Two Little Girls in Blue also suffers from Clark's few weaknesses. She handles viewpoint in a charmingly old-fashioned way, and her characters' thoughts are always set off like dialogue instead of being worked into the narration. She often withholds key information in an obvious way, tantalizing us so that we're reminded that we're reading fiction rather than experiencing something real.

And because she tries to keep several suspects viable until the last possible moment, we often end up with two or three equally likely suspects; a technique that can lead us not to care much which one it is.

Fortunately, the mystery itself -- who is the "Pied Piper," the mastermind of a plot to kidnap the twin daughters of a virtually penniless family and demand a ransom of millions of dollars? -- is secondary to the thriller aspect of the story: Will they find the kids in time to save the life of the one that's sick? And the Pied Piper is far less interesting than Mona, the woman whose role in the conspiracy is to tend the girls -- until she decides she doesn't want to follow the plan.

I enjoyed every minute of the book -- especially because it was masterfully read on cd by Jan Maxwell, who has frequently narrated Clark's novels in the past.


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