High school production moved to Athletic Park

Patricia Middleton
Newton Kansan
"Zoo Story" will be performed at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 and 27 in the bandshell north of Fischer Field in Athletic Park.

The show must go on, as the saying goes — even if it’s slightly delayed by a pandemic.

For Newton High School senior Jacob Phillips, that meant taking the one-act play he had planned to direct at the school in March and turning it into an outdoor production.

"This is probably one of the first — or first in a while — times that we've done something like this,” Phillips said. “It’s an outside-of-the-school performance for the public in the outdoors."

Attendees are asked to donate at the performances to support the high school theater troupe. Phillips is currently serving as the organization’s president.

Phillips chose to direct “Zoo Story” by Edward Albee after performing a monologue from the play himself.

"It's an absurdist play and usually the whole point of absurdist plays is to question your life and question yourself," Phillips said.

The two characters in “Zoo Story” — Peter, who will be played by Tryston Mitchell, and Jerry, played by Creed Ekerberg — meet in Central Park and embark upon a conversation that includes probing personal questions and rambling stories.

"I made sure to cast people who were very experienced — some of the most experienced in our theatre troupe," Phillips said.

For Phillips, directing the show involved more than just telling the actors what to do — he also had to figure out how to work with a completely different type of stage.

"We're not doing the show at the school, so that's a tricky thing — do we use mics? We're on a concrete slab, so we can't drill into a stage," Phillips said.

Promoting “Zoo Story” also meant enlisting the talents of classmates Morgan Hiebert and Taylor Redington, who designed a poster for the production.

"It's been the small details of the show that are the hardest part,” Phillips said.

Phillips also worked to infuse meaning into every aspect of the production, from deciding how and when the actors should move to planning a streamlined set so the audience would focus on the characters’ dialogue.

"It's super interesting. Everything in it is a metaphor for life," Phillips said. "... It makes you question society and how you're treating people and how people are treating you and if you need to change what you're doing."

"It's got some heavier themes in it," said Newton High School theater teacher Jessica Heidrick. "It's so complex and interesting."

Heidrick supported of her student’s idea to stage the one-act play in a new venue, giving audiences a way to watch a live performance while still following local health guidelines.

"We talked about some different outdoor locations that would work and Jacob really wanted to do it in the bandshell near Fischer Field," Heidrick said. "… Then my thespians came up with doing as a fundraiser."

The donations raised by the performances will be used to pay for scholarships for students to attend thespian festivals, go to theatrical performances in the area, and cover some of the thespian troupe’s membership dues.

Heidrick feels the school’s theater classes are vital and give students refuge from a constant barrage of stressors.

"I think it's more important than ever in the sense that there’s a lot of trauma going on right now because of COVID-19,” Heidrick said. “Having a place for them to express themselves is kind of huge. It's nice to see them walk into my room and see their shoulders relax. They can get up and move and we can talk about feelings and they can be vulnerable."

Theater class looks a little different this school year. While students still participate in drama games, they take place on a stage that has been divided into six-foot squares so students remember to stay apart.

The pandemic pushed Heidrick to think outside the box when it came to teaching theater.

"Things were changing so much and so frequently — and they still are. You plan for one thing, but you have five contingencies for it in case that something doesn't work out," Heidrick said. "... Not having control, in general, through COVID-19 is really hard for me because I love my students and teaching so much. I want to give them consistency and stability right now."

For Phillips, COVID-19 gave him a chance to reevaluate his thoughts about lightening his senior year schedule and instead embrace every opportunity that came his way — from band to the drumline to theater.

“I'm so excited for the performance day, to see all the work that we've put into it blossom into a show," Phillips said.

“Zoo Story” will be performed at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 and 27 in the bandshell north of Fischer Field in Athletic Park.