Dramatic decisions


Above shows Legally Blonde, one of the most recognizable plays Wilsonville has ever performed, reaching a legendary status in the community.

While it’s exciting to talk about high school theatre as an art form, something lurks behind it all. 

Something… daunting.

Imagine if high schools only got to pick three sports to perform annually– one for each season. That seems impossible, right? How would enough students be able to participate? How do you make sure that everyone’s talents and abilities are accounted for in your choice?

The answer is they try to cover all their bases, and provide a little something for everyone. This is what the theatre program at Wilsonville High School and many other schools across the country attempt to do when choosing their productions for each school year.

This balancing act is performed at Wilsonville with a fair amount of success. Wilsonville High School theatre seasons are pretty similar every year. They have a musical in the fall, a classical play in the winter, and a contemporary play in the spring. 

Jason Katz is a director of the theatre department at Wilsonville High School. Katz, along with director John Fitzgerald, have the responsibility of choosing what plays to perform next year, each and every year. 

One aspect of this immense choice is clear– Katz and Fitzgerald are weighed down by various logistic factors. “We try to do shows that have a cast large enough people in it… there’s a lot of great productions with three or four characters that we would never do because we want to use as many of the people we have as we can.”  

Another glaring restriction is age appropriateness: “There are lots of great shows that are very adult in theme, dialogue and character,” says Katz, “but it would be almost unfair to high schoolers to have them in a situation where they have to play 50 year-old, alcoholic divorcees struggling through a midlife crisis.”

With what to avoid established, are there any attributes to look for? Katz has the answer– variety. “Because Fitz (Fitzgerald) directs one show and I direct two per year, usually he will direct something classic, like Shakespeare, and I will direct a musical in addition to something kinda quirky.”

Including a classic in the annual rotation is a strategy our high school, as well as many others have done for a long time. A play people are familiar with, either through the play itself or by authorship, makes perfect sense in the middle slot. This type of play draws both actors and audience members through recognition, getting a lot of turnout. Turnout that serves a dual function of fundraising for the theatre program and bolstering popularity going into the next play. Not to mention that classics are recipes that are tried and true–they have been performed over and over again, refined to their most optimal points, while still maintaining room for creative and directorial growth. Midsummer Night’s Dream from the 2021-2022 season was the perfect execution of this concept. 

This picture is from the 2022 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was the classical play of the season. Many people loved the beautiful set and costumes, as well as the wonderful acting. 

Wait though– what does Katz mean by ‘something kinda quirky?’ “For a very long time there was a staple of high school shows that everybody did. Now online there are little nooks and crannies on the internet where theatre directors will share about shows they’ve done; ‘Hey have you seen this?’ ‘Have you heard about this show?’ and so now we have a lot more access to contemporary plays, and these fresher plays can make their rounds,” says Katz. He continues, “So often we’ll pick something that’s placed in a fun world, that has a lot of fight scenes or maybe something a little goofy, like Puffs.”

A scene from Puffs where students are portraying drunk teenagers, living up to the expectation of an honest and quirky play.

While Spark of May 2022 may have been an example where the willingness to try something new didn’t quite pay off, that aptitude to perform something a little more gimmicky or risky certainly paid off in this Winter’s Puffs, which was adored by audiences and actors alike. 

So that’s as clear cut as it gets. A classic like a Shakespearean for reliability, and an ever-slightly experimental play. Whether that play is particularly well received doesn’t matter as long as you have two other very strong plays; you can afford to risk it and choose something a little unorthodox. 

Every year though, one show receives particularly special attention at Wilsonville High School: the musical. 

This is due to two main factors: the amount of people able to participate, and the popularity of musical theatre. Musicals allow for large lasts of people, and lots of stage time for many performers. Additionally, there are many behind the scene opportunities for students because backstage crew and a full orchestra are required to produce a Musical. 

Furthermore, the musical is what brings in the largest audience and hence ticket revenue. This money then helps support the other productions that occur in the winter and spring. 

However, in post-COVID times the theatre department at Wilsonville has been on the decline for various reasons, foremost the inability to perform for two years because of COVID. Some would argue that the lack of student participants in theater (in comparison to prior years) is because of COVID, but the issue runs deeper. 

“There are not many shows that are about the teenage experience especially that I have been in or that I find are very accurate… There are some aspects of each character that I portray that I do relate to mostly because that’s what you have to find as an actor; there has not been one that’s like wow, that’s just like me,” said senior at Wilsonville Penny Burian.

This is a side effect of attending a public school because there are many shows that fabulously demonstrate the teenage experience but are deemed too mature. Also, unlike a paying theatre company, there is the limiting factor of the students available to be cast in a musical. At Wilsonville there are only so many students who can or want to participate in theater, unlike the thousands of people who audition for Broadway shows. 

“Sometimes it’s voice types, like when we had three guy teners a long time ago like 2010, it’s like this is never gonna happen again, let’s do Les Mis…like we did Legally blonde four years ago and that had tons of great stuff like this, the only reason is it’s hard to do it again is we need the perfect Elle Woods for it to work.” said Katz. 

This really does beg the question, is it covid that is causing less students to audition for the productions at Wilsonville? Or is it the lack of material that would resonate with teens? Or the fact that shows aren’t being cast based on student desires but on perceived available talent? 

When high school student actors are deprived of performance opportunities that represent the teenage experience or that are popular, like Mama Mia, these productions will not attract more and new students. 

 Additionally, more students would be attracted if the directors would be willing to take risks on the musical, and not be cast until after auditions. It is important to acknowledge that the director has the difficult job of also making sure that the musical is good enough that they can then choose a fun and experimental play to do later in the year.

 Although the choosing of shows for a high school theatre might seem insignificant and easy, the decision of what to choose is quite complex and impactful. The importance of the musical stretches beyond the bounds of student happiness, and a fun performance opportunity, but also impacts the well being of the rest of the theatre department. 

This burden of choice falls into the directors of theater departments. At Wilsonville they are lucky enough to have a theater department that has created a way to support their students and allow them to express themselves creatively on stage through various productions.