Just two years ago, when Holy Family opened its new Performance Center, all eyes were focused on how the space would be used. Yes, the “black-box theater” with seating to stage left and stage right is an intimate space for special school Masses. It’s also a place worthy of student art shows, band and choral concerts and the all-school “Coffee House” talent nights. By all accounts, the Performance Center was off to a busy start.
But the ultimate dream for the new Performance Center was to inspire and invigorate Holy Family’s Theatre Arts program, giving students a place to perform, sing, dance, imagine and create.
“We want people to know this school is dedicated to the arts,” says Eric Olson, the school’s new theatre director who joined the faculty this year. “To create an amazing theatre arts program at Holy Family, we’re going to set the bar high so that kids from other schools will want to bring their talents here.”
Olson knew for his theater program to get off to a rousing start, it was time to inspire students to reach for the stars and make a bold theatrical statement. Just weeks after school began, Olson hung posters and got the message out in daily school announcements. Auditions were scheduled for Holy Family’s first production of the year—The Wizard of Oz! He chose the classic for a number of reasons.
- Generations love this popular musical, and it is a story that draws big crowds.
- It was one of the first movies Olson remembers as a child—“It was so magical and creative to escape to the Land of Oz!”
- It sets the expectations high and requires lots of student participation to make it all happen.
Olson didn’t have to wait long for the buzz and excitement to kick in.
“Within the first week, students were pounding on my door,” he shares. “So many wonderfully talented kids came out and wanted to be part of it from many aspects—lighting, sound, costuming, singing and acting. As a director, I can’t ask for anything better.”
Fueled By Passion
It takes more than one director with a vision and the passion to make it all happen. Olson’s challenge was to get everyone collectively excited, particularly in a high school with fewer than 500 students.
He relied on his experience, letting the students know he was ready to embark on something big. Something similar to what he did with his own K-12 theater company that produced 34 shows in nine years.
“I had to talk to the students and convince them to give me a shot,” Olson said.
And that they did. From day one, he has received rave reviews from both cast and crew.
“Mr. Olson gives really good instruction on acting and you know exactly what his vision is,” says senior actor Giselle Shannon, who performed in her first show as a freshman and is finishing with the coveted role of the Wicked Witch of the West. “He has a vision for what he wants and conveys it effectively, even during auditions.”
The excitement for this new level of Holy Family theater doesn’t just come from the actors under the lights or those who have seen the program evolve over the years.
Freshman Collin Nawrocki raised his hand to help with sound, something he was familiar with and interested in. It didn’t take long for him to step beyond his comfort zone, taking on full duties as “student director.” He designed the program, posters and tickets; manages the soundboard; learned the nuances of stage lighting; and came up with a dramatic way to project the “great and all-powerful Oz!”
Olson calls Nawrocki “Boss Man” to the cast, empowering him to multitask and keep everyone focused.
“People have no idea of how much work goes on behind the scenes,” Nawrocki says. “There is coordinating food, mics, costume design, special effects, lighting cues. The most difficult part is not knowing what’s going to go wrong.”
However, he doesn’t feel alone. The cast and crew in this year’s musical has become a tight family ready to help at a moment’s notice.
“You just can’t do it all by yourself,” Nawrocki says. “You have to have people around you that are supporting you. If you don’t, things won’t function well.”
Senior Ben Richards, performing the demanding role of the Cowardly Lion, shares similar sentiments, noting that the sacrifice of time extends far beyond the theater.
“You can’t do everything in practice,” he says. “There is a lot that goes on and has to be done at home. People don’t realize that family members help memorize our lines and master scenes. They are a big part of it.”
One thing clearly doesn’t go unnoticed to many of the students involved in the theatre arts program. Holy Family provides opportunities they may not get at larger schools.
Richards says, “In a small school, you can do theater, Italian Club, athletics and get it all done. A lot of us are committed to so many things, yet we do well because we manage time and school work well.”
Shannon agrees, knowing that she might not have the same chance to do it all in a larger school.
“Everyone is really understanding of each other because we have so many things we’re involved in,” she says. “Here, the only pressure is to do a good job collectively.
All Hands On Deck
Take a look around the school just weeks before the “curtain lifts” and there are theater activities happening simultaneously in every corner of the school.
- The Chorus, a group of students playing support roles in multiple scenes, works on the main stage with student choreographer Lillian Graupman.
- Across the school, Holy Family Music Teacher Annelise Brown is fine-tuning a song and dance number in the chorus room with the main cast.
- In a storage room adjacent to the theater, art teacher Shelagh Gamble “helps” two students putting finishing touches on the “Munchkin Land” set, one of four multi-paneled scene changes created for the musical. (Dozens of volunteers and students from Art 1 and Painting 2 classes created the massive backdrops.)
- During a break, freshman Marie Fahey, cast as Dorothy, practices Over the Rainbow using the new wireless microphones Nawrocki sourced for improved sound.
- Back on stage, middle-school students from Guardian Angels Catholic School in Chaska take their place as the loveable Munchkins, practicing their big scene with Dorothy.
None of this, mind you, takes place under Olson’s direction. The students are working independently today, as Olson, who also has a master’s in English and teaches American and Modern Literature, tends to Parent/Teacher Conference duties.
It Takes Unsung Heroes
In the dressing room, senior Costume Designer Natalie Wideman has Gigi (Shannon) try on a pair of black high-tie heels, perfect for the Kansas persona of Miss Almira Gulch, who transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West.
“Do they fit?” Wideman curiously asks, while wheeling a rack of costumes she’s altering. “Can you walk around in them for the whole show? Why don’t you wear them for the rest of practice today just to make sure.”
Wideman shares costume and set styling duties with Graupman. She used to act, but instead has taken a backstage role this year to do what she loves—create awe-inspiring costumes. She learned to sew from her mother while in 4-H, and began designing clothes on her own shortly after.
“I’m taking a 1980s style wedding gown with the big puffy sleeves and making it into Glinda’s dress,” she grins. “It’s going to be fabulous!”
Wideman points out many students helped with this year’s musical, thanks to Olson’s all-school outreach that has made theater arts the talk of Holy Family.
“The whole school is involved. People are volunteering to paint backdrops and bring in props. A lot of people are pitching in with the lifting (of scenes) and helping make this something special.”
And the Show Goes On…
The lights will be glowing bright on opening night—7 p.m. Friday, December 8—when the first of three performances kick off a weekend filled with Oz. With every practice, confidence is growing and the pieces are falling into place.
“Kids in the theater space are full of ideas,” Olson says. “I want collaboration. I want to run the program by listening to students and other teachers, taking in what they want and working together to make it happen.”
No one knows that better than Nawrocki, who spends each day after school immersed in the theater environment.
“I’ve given him (Olson) so many crazy ideas,” he says, “and a few of them have even happened. There are going to be some unexpected surprises (with Oz). We haven’t even figured all of them out yet, but there will be some pretty cool stuff.”
That kind of enthusiasm in the theatre arts experience is exactly what Olson was hoping to bring to Holy Family.
“My biggest goal is to make kids feel welcome and that they have a place to trust in, perform and be expressive,” Olson says. “I want to establish a place where the kids know they can come and have it theirs.”
Getting back to that black-box theater busy with activity, Olson sees it as a challenge that’s even new to him.
“Most theaters I’ve been in are auditoriums with theater-style seating,” he explains. “This is definitely different and it’s uniquely challenging. We have to block things out differently. We’re in a triangle, performing for two sides of the room.
“I think the audience is going to have an intimate experience and see the actors and scenes up close. They’re going to be involved rather than sitting back, feeling like they’re part of every performance.”
Click HERE for the Wizard of Oz performance schedule. We hope you’ll join us for the show!