Elaine Kloser and Jeff Hall speak to students before an audition.
'Curtains' opens Feb. 21
Jesuit High School drama presents the musical 'Curtains' Feb. 21-March 3. Tickets go on sale Feb. 2.
'Curtains' unfolds backstage. A new musical could be a Broadway smash, except the leading lady lacks talent. After the hapless star dies on opening night during her curtain call, detective Frank Cioffi arrives to investigate. The lure of the theater proves irresistible to the cop and after an unexpected romance begins, he is just as involved in the show as he is in solving the murder.
Set for April 25-28 is "The 39 Steps," a fast-paced and comic whodunit. There is even an on-stage plane crash.
Student-written and produced plays will be on stage at Jesuit May 23-25.
After the last performance of each spring musical at Jesuit High School, cast and crew gather on the quiet set. The students assemble a makeshift altar. One of the Jesuit priests who lives on campus arrives. The Eucharist that ensues is all the more stirring because of the close community that has formed over the previous months.
During prayers of the faithful at one of the liturgies, a girl from the chorus admits that she at first feared she'd be a nobody. But as time went on, she knew she was a valued part of an important enterprise.
"Drama is service," says Jeff Hall, who has taught drama at Jesuit for 22 years. He explains that actors and crew serve the audience. Internally, stage hands serve the cast. Those on stage serve each other. Everyone has a role of giving they must carry out if the production is to succeed.
"We never want drama to be about self-service," says Elaine Kloser, who joined Hall on staff 21 years ago. "It's not about being in the spotlight."
Hall and Kloser met one day with Jesuit football coach Ken Potter. The three decided that they have the same goal — teaching teamwork.
Riley Parham, a senior who's been in drama since his freshman year, directed a one-act play for this month's festival. For him, seeing a production from the other side accentuated the marvels of communal action.
Parham's favorite time was when the cast and crew's general mood shifted from "this will never work" to "it's a show to serve others." He likens the moment to an epiphany.
Parham himself went through a transformation because of drama. He credits it with helping him move from shyness to finding himself. "You can put on a mask and become a character," Parham explains. "But you can also let yourself loose and become that character, using what's you."
Theater has been part of the curriculum in Jesuit education since the order began its schools 450 years ago.
"It makes everybody well rounded," Kloser says. "It's good to use that side of your brain. We're not necessarily training people for Broadway, but we want them to be good people."
Some Jesuit graduates do in fact go on to acting careers on stage and in television. But that's not the aim here. The goal is teaching youths to be part of something larger than themselves.
Livia Godaert, a senior, played the lead in last year's "Mother Hix." She wrote about the play in her applications for college, where she hopes to be an international relations major. Drama makes speaking in front of people more comfortable, Godaert says. But even more important, she explains, being in a production makes it clear that no one succeeds alone.
"Drama is a community story-telling effort," Hall says. In addition to actors, the story is conveyed by sound, lights and set. "There are kids here who have never been seen by the audience, but they feel very connected."
As an audition begins, Hall and Kloser look over a pond of expectant young faces. Not everyone will get the part of his or or dreams.
"If you want to be involved, you can be," Hall tells students. "You just may not be on stage. That's the reality."
Some students love backstage work. On performance nights, Hall and Kloser have heard crew members pointing to the set and whispering to their parents, "I made that part."
Abby Schamp, a junior, is a science and math whiz. As a sophomore, she signed up for a theater technology class and just hoped to get through it fast. Instead, she fell for the life utterly and completely.
"People who do tech stuff are my people," she says.
Schamp and her colleagues devised a slanting stage to shed water for "Singin' in the Rain." They've employed ladders, riggings and counterweights 50 feet in the air to make trees appear and actors fly.
Jesuit students often break stereotypes. One football player joined the cast of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Laramie Project," which counters gay stereotypes and violence against homosexuals. He later enrolled in the playwright class and after graduation got a part in a film.
"One of the things that's great about Jesuit is that there is encouragement to try something new," Hall explains.
Transformations happen. Hall and Kloser recall one graduate who came as a shy freshman who was always looking at his own shoes. As a sophomore, he worked back stage. As a junior, he got on stage and found his voice. Later, he landed a role in the television show "Friday Night Lights."
Jesuit drama, it turns out, cannot be contained at the campus and for its students. Hall and Kloser also run the Young People's Theater Project, a not-for-profit that helps youths from all over the region experience the life of the stage. Jesuit allows the project to use the school's theater for middle school drama classes and camps. Jesuit drama students take part as teachers. The project also goes on the road, bringing costumes, sets and expertise to middle schools so kids can act in high-quality productions. School budget cuts have laid waste to many drama programs, so the outreach from Jesuit is being welcomed heartily.
Kloser and Hall are a formidable playhouse team, quick-witted, blessed with good timing, able to finish each other's sentences. They have backgrounds not only in acting, but in technical effects and scene design. Their office is stuffed with costumes, props and other tools of the stage. That's alright; they spend most of their time on the stage with students anyway. By show time, they have turned almost everything over to the students.
Hall and Kloser feel backed by the rest of the school. There is a high-tech 500-seat auditorium that fills up for performances. Ticket sales allow the drama program to be self-supporting. Alumni and parents step forward to choreograph, sew costumes and sell tickets. One parent has likened each production to a barn-raising.
The drama teachers appreciate being at a Catholic school. That allows them to try plays with spiritual material, like "Dead Man Walking" in 2005.
"There is something about art itself that is spiritual," Hall says. "We get to recognize it and name it."
The drama program has challenged prevailing culture at times. In 2006, Jesuit staged a series of plays exploring people out of the mainstream — "Bat Boy," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Laramie Project."
Father J.K. Adams, superior of the community of Jesuits who live at the school, says Kloser and Hall teach with mission in mind. Both are "deeply committed to the church" and make the connection between what the cast and crew do on stage and what God is doing in the world.
Jennifer Goldsmith, associate development director of Portland Center Stage, is a big fan of Hall and Kloser. She especially admires the focus on outreach, explaining that the teachers respect and understand young performers from any neighborhood.
"They are bringing a gift to the world," Goldsmith says. "They are bringing us people who love theater, who love to read, people who are more empathetic, who know how to walk in the skin of other people. They understand the importance of the process of drama. The highest benefit for them is the participation, not the outcome."