How do you squeeze as much out of a roughly half-hour one-act play? You keep performing it, something made much more possible when you keep getting chosen as one of the best troupes around.
The Peoples Academy theater students recently took their one-act play as far as they could, getting selected to perform at the 2023 New England Drama Festival. The students punched their ticket to the festival, held April 20-22 in Rockport, Maine, by producing one of the top two Vermont one-act plays this season.
The students performed “Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play,” written by Lauren Wilson and published in 2008. It’s a comedic take on the classic horror story about the titular split-personality main character that might take a little while for audiences to realize that it’s OK to laugh, once they realize early that Dr. Hyde really gets a kick out of being evil and decides to lean into it.
Here’s a sample, between Hyde and his friend Xavier Utterson.
XAVIER: But who on earth would want to be pure evil?
HENRY: All of us! Imagine being free to roam the world, shouting at strangers, kicking and biting, grabbing whatever you want with no inhibition, mowing down whoever gets in your way, no longer constrained by the rules of polite society…
XAVIER: Good heavens! It sounds like being an American!
The troupe from “Chemical Imbalance” included 19 students, 11 of them in the cast and the other eight responsible for production — lighting, props, sound, costumes, makeup and hair. The actors, when auditioning in January, had to read their lines in Victorian-era English accents, and later had an English person tell them they passed muster.
A typical one-act show is stripped down to about a half hour in length, give or take 10 minutes or so, which often results in pitter-patter dialogue like the kind Amy Sherman-Palladino — “Gilmore Girls” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — or Aaron Sorkin — walkin’ talkin’ “West Wing” — write to make normal people seem like they always have a quip in their pocket.
Appropriately, senior Mia Smith said “Gilmore Girls” is her favorite show, and theater teacher Dave Gabaree said those types of back-and-forths are perfect not only for condensed one-act shows but for teaching drama students the art of timing and listening.
“Things like that are great for all the cues in a play like ‘Chemical Imbalance,’ because they’re just zipping through those lines,” Gabaree said.
One act, many layers
Seniors Smith, Andi Marie Tisdell and Amatista Keller-Angelo spoke this week about their experiences, along with Gabaree.
The students will graduate this year with varying levels of drama experience. Keller-Angelo just got into drama this school year, while Smith is the only student who has been in drama all four years in school — productions in front of audiences were paused during the pandemic. Tisdell joined last year after being summoned to the office and having Gabaree ask “what are you doing tonight?”
Gabaree said this senior class got robbed of any semblance of a four-year high school dramatic arts experience. While this year’s theater students were able to look up to a veteran like Smith, she only got that opportunity for one year — she and her 2020 classmates were only able to perform the one-act production once and then the world shut down and all the props and costumes were dusty when things were able to really start up again.
“Mia’s was a unique journey from any other student that’s ever gone through Peoples Academy, whether it was under my direction here or not,” Gabaree said. “It was a different way of learning and relating to each other that the whole world was adjusting to.”
Smith said it was “devastating” to lose that singular grind, “that thing that happens with rehearsals and coming here day after day, just repeatedly working on these things.” But in her senior year, she has found that again.
“Now I have this group and I feel that these connections have been formed again with the younger students, and I feel like they might be able to go through the same thing I did,” she said. “Minus the pandemic.”
The seniors say that being part of the drama program has influenced them in ways they’ll take from Peoples Academy.
Keller-Angelo said she learned the joy of working together with people and rooting for each other to succeed.
“To feel like you’re cooperating and working together and getting long, I think there’s something kind of really beautiful about that,” she said.
Smith, the veteran, is likely going to college in Washington, and thinks she is less likely to perform in university productions or come back to Vermont for summertime community theater shows. However, she said the PA drama experience has made her eager to simply devour the arts and plans to attend as many shows as she can.
That’s important, Gabaree said, because theaters post-pandemic need “butts in seats” in order to survive — witness the highly-regarded Stowe Theatre Guild skipping the summer season while it regroups and tries to figure out how to survive in the future.
Keller-Angelo said the success of “Chemical Imbalance” brought the PA students to audiences further and further removed from Morrisville — soon enough, you’re no longer performing for mom and dad, but for people who are attending shows simply because they want to attend them.
The troupe has gotten tight over the year, having all been on stage together earlier this school year for the school’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” They will likely all audition for the spring play, which is still to be determined — the only downside to being a small school with one of the top two one-act plays in the state means the touring involved doesn’t allow for auditions and preparation for the next production.
The seniors and Gabaree are quick to finish some of their sentences — and finish each other’s sentences — with “…but it’s not a competition,” enough times that one thinks, perhaps, just perhaps, there might be something of a competition there.
After all, only two plays are selected to go from regionals to the state level, and then, from there, only two schools are selected to go to the New England festival — Milton High School was the other one from Vermont.
Tisdell said one of the things she learned from Gabaree — whom Keller-Angelo notes has a clipboard that says “stage dad” on it — is the idea of being on a team, of building a community.
“I haven’t been a sports person since sixth grade,” Tisdell said. “This is the first place where I understood the sports team mentality of, we are a group of people, and knowing why all the soccer kids hang out together.”
Added Smith, “I’d say this team is closer knit than any sports team because we have three seasons, not just one.”
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