On Nov. 27, the Newton High School drama department received an invitation to bring its production of "The Fall of the House of Usher" to the State Thespian Conference in January 2018. The cast and crew will perform the show at 7 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2018, at Century II in Wichita for an audience of nearly 2,000 people. 

Tanner DeGrado, who played Roderick Usher, said he felt "overwhelming joy" after hearing the show had been selected.

"I could barely sit still and the smile didn't leave my face until the week after," DeGrado said. "So much hard work had paid off and it felt like, as a collective group, we were finally getting a chance to show what Newton's drama department can do."

NHS drama teacher Michael Parker said the festival provides a chance for theatre students from across Kansas to come together for an immersive weekend of theatre that includes performances, theatre-related workshops, competitions and college and scholarship auditions.

"Having a production selected for one of the three main stage slots is a huge honor," Parker said.

Newton High School was last selected to perform in the festival in 2001.

"It is so exciting to think about the opportunity we now get to have, performing in front of 2,000 of our peers from around the state of Kansas," DeGrado said.

Brett Knepper will reprise his role as Manfredo.

"I'm very enthusiastic about doing this," Knepper said. "It's been a dream of mine to go to state since my first show, 'All Shook Up,' during my sophomore year. And now, being able to go as a senior, it's just so unreal."

Nathan Garber, who plays Ed Allen, said he knew that there was going to be a lot of work put into the production to get it state ready, but that the drama department was capable of success.

"This is going to be a remarkable and memorable experience to start off the second semester of my senior year in high school because of the fact that we will be performing in front of all of the troupes in the state and showing them the spectacular show that we have put together," Garber said. "Out of all of the shows that I have done throughout my high school career, I am very glad that this is the show that was selected to go to state."

Ellie Bradley, the show's stage manager, said after spending years seeing others perform at the State Thespian Festival, she feels honored to take a show from NHS.

"The Fall of the House of Usher is complex in almost every area. The acting is unique and extremely thought out," Bradley said. "To complement the students on stage, the creativity and design that has gone into every aspect of technical work is tremendous."

Bradley's role as stage manager required her to take on numerous tasks and learn new techniques to create the production.

"In some ways, we're finally on the radar for a lot of other students, teachers and administration. We should have been previously, as we've had many more accomplishments than just making it to state, but this opportunity to show everyone what's going on and how important what's happening is incredible," Bradley said.

Chelsie Penner will take up her place behind the scenes as the show's assistant stage manager.

"I’m so proud that our show was selected for state," Penner said. "It amazes me that this is the first show that Newton has taken to state in 16 years. That’s as old as me."

Having the work of both the actors and backstage crew members recognized by their peers is meaningful for Penner.

"I think this is going to be a performance we will never forget and I hope this really shows how serious and amazing theatre can be," Penner said.

It will take many hours of work to pack up the set, costumes and props for the show's move from Newton to Wichita.

"We will load them into two large moving trucks, which will be taken to Century II on Friday morning," Parker said. "We will meet the trucks at 7 a.m. and start unloading the set and rebuilding it on the stage at the Concert Hall. With any luck, we will have it completed by noon."

That will give the cast and crew just enough time for one rehearsal before their 7 p.m. performance, after which they will strike the set and reload the trucks to be sent back to the high school.

"We will finish the festival on Saturday, return to the school and unload the trucks," Parker said. "It is a lot of work, but it is such a rewarding experience for the students." 

Members of the thespian troupe are raising funds to cover the costs of attending the festival in several ways.

"During our initial run in October, Kansas artist John Dow donated an original painting of Edgar Allan Poe to be used on the set," Parker said. "He also gave us permission to auction off the painting to help raise funds for the department. We had a silent auction going during our original production, but we did not meet the reserve price that the artist had requested, so we are putting it up for auction again."

There will be an encore performance of "The Fall of the House of Usher" at 7 p.m. Jan. 2, 2018, at NHS, preceded by a chili feed at 4 p.m in the NHS Commons area. People can choose to either come just for the chili, which will be available to take home, or opt to stay for the show afterwards.

"This performance is to give our students an opportunity to perform in front of an audience one more time before state," Parker said. "It is also a chance for the community to come out and support the NHS Drama students who will be representing the school and city at the Kansas State Thespian Conference." 

All seats will be general admission, and tickets are $10 each. 

Drama students will also rake leaves or remove snow from yards for the next few weeks for a donation of $15 for either the back or front yard or $25 for both.

"Any money that we raise through these endeavors will help to cover all costs of sending 'The Fall of the House of Usher' to the state festival," Parker said. "Any additional money raised will go back into the department to help fund our future productions."

For more information about the NHS drama department, contact Parker at michael.parker@usd373.org.