“What I remember most about high school was our school play,” the nearly seventy-year-old rural Ettrick woman reminisced. “The play was what we talked about at our 50th school reunion. We all laughed and still hummed bars of the songs.”
I recently spent time on a windy January day at the local school play.
The play was a modern version of the Old English Canterbury Tales. The students brought humor and delight to the weary works of Geoffrey Chaucer. The play gave students in rural Wisconsin a chance to experience the joy of theater.
Months of practice went into the performance.
Nearly a fifth of the junior and senior high students participated in the play; but in this rural school that still meant some actors played three and four roles.
Not that any of the students complained; quite the contrary. They prided themselves in their ability to recite from memory the entire script. When jobs and sports prevented some actors from attending play practice, others were eager to step in to fill a part.
That familiarity with the script showed as students reappeared on stage switching costumes and personalities quickly as scenes changed.
The devoted director and his assistant both came to play practice after full time jobs; the director as the school district’s chief custodian and his assistant as a human resource director. Many families waited up nights as teens came home later and later as performance dates neared.
Parents and grandparents played their parts too; first in driving the younger students to practice four nights a week for most of three months. Later in finding costumes at local thrift shops. After months of preparation the community was eager to see what the students accomplished.
The curtain rose in a dark gymnasium. Cameras flashed and videos rolled. We chuckled at stage antics of the actors. We laughed. We applauded. We ignored the aging stage curtains and the firm folding chairs. During intermission we swapped stories of past plays. We shared in the joy and excitement.
It was a proud moment when the students make their final curtain call. We all cheered and applauded. Special recognition went to the seniors who performed for many years in the school play. Some in the audience quietly reminisced, remembering several generations who performed on the same stage.
Nothing can replace the enthusiastic chatter of teens as they line up to shake hands with every member of the audience. For many months the teens enjoyed learning to act. Theater brought them an experience that never be duplicated in a classroom.
It’s a bittersweet memory I take with me on my four-hour drive to Madison. In a few weeks I’ll be pouring through the numbers of state-dollars going back to local school districts. The amount has dwindled for years and the cuts have made some usually jovial school superintendents increasingly somber.
Extracurricular activities like drama are often on the chopping block.
“There is no more to cut”, a member of one of the school boards told me. “We’ve done everything we can,’” I hear from another. “The state’s given us two choices,” says a third, “raise property taxes or cut programs.”
Budget choices must be made- both at the state and the local level. If the state continues to cut school funding, people at the local level have to make the difficult decision to raise property taxes to keep paying for the programs parents and students love.
Theater inspires creativity. Theater takes us to another time and place. For a few hours the warmth of community and the enthusiasm of youth replace the cold winter wind; and turn the school auditorium into a magical place.
Thrift shop fineries turn into feathers of chickens and fur of a western Wisconsin fox. Choir robes turn to medieval tunics.
Young women find romance. Young men find adventure. Shy stage managers become the hero of young children. Scholars see an old tale come to life. And young adults have experiences that will shape their lives.
I enjoyed Sunday afternoon at the theater. It provided a reminder why what happens in the state budget in the next few months is so important.
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