Behind The Scenes

Mrs. Gillen talks about what the Drama class is, what they do, and how they plan to adapt.

   Here at El Modena, we are lucky to be the only high school with a full-day theatre program in Orange Unified. Unfortunately, a large chunk of the student body is unaware of how the class functions and what it does, aside from the few advertising posters scattered across campus. El Modena Frontline hopes to put the overdue spotlight on them. 

   Thanks to its nature of being live, no two performances are ever the same. “Theatre explores what it is to be human,” Mrs. Gillen, the Drama class instructor, explains. “There’s an immediate connection between the audience and the actors that you just don’t get with film or television.” 

   Productions are a team effort among the actors and technology. While the actors are sorted into their roles and rehearse, the Theatre Tech class busily creates the sets, hunts down props, and designs or gathers costumes. They handle the publicity as well.

   Depending on the genre, classes from outside Drama can also get involved. Dance students are often incorporated into the musicals, for example, and Photography and Art students are encouraged to get involved. “A few years ago, we added a Rehearsal & Performance class, in which all the performers and key tech people are enrolled,” Mrs. Gillen adds, “So they receive academic credit for their talent and the time and effort they put in after school.” As far as she knows, El Mo is the only high school in Orange with this opportunity. 

   When choosing a play, everything from the quality of the writing to the opportunities it offers to those involved are considered. With drama specifically, its relevance is also accounted for. Last fall’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank related to the many attacks on other people’s race, religion, and sexuality seen today. The covid-19 lockdown became an unforeseen connection. 

   Musicals are the most complicated. They have a plethora of moving parts, showy costumes and sets, and high expectations to uphold. “Disney’s The Little Mermaid was shaping up to be our most complex show yet,” Mrs. Gillen says. “Since we’ve postponed it to next spring, we hope, we have lots more time to spend on sets and costumes, so it should be spectacular.” While the delay is an unfortunate situation for the graduating seniors who were cast, she hopes that some of them will return as alumni guest artists. 

   Disney’s The Little Mermaid wasn’t the only production thrown off course. A student-directed project in the Advanced Drama class never got off the ground. Directors Alexandria Mangrich and Juliann Nava were about to open up auditions when the shutdown was announced. 

   These past few months have been a bit of a struggle for the class. Since there is no textbook, Mrs. Gillen was afraid she would be forced into adopting a more traditional, academic curriculum. “Fortunately, within a couple of weeks, publishers were coming up with a whole new subgenre of theatre: Virtual Theatre,” she says. The plays are designed for a virtual platform, incorporating several monologues and minimal set and tech requirements. Currently, the Drama 1 classes are working on 10-minute vignettes, and the Advanced Drama class is working on 10 Ways to Survive a Life in Quarantine. Mrs. Gillen intends to record and post them on a couple of El Modena’s platforms. Theatre Tech is a harder class to adapt since it’s so  product-oriented. For now, they have been doing assignments that challenge their creativity. 

   As for the future, Mrs. Gillen is preparing for a worst case scenario. If online learning continues, there will be plenty of virtual meetings, since the aspect of human interaction is vital to the course, and many other elements are already being adapted to be more distance-friendly. “I will have to make some radical changes in the Theater Tech class if there are no productions for them to work on,” Mrs. Gillen adds. “It would be kind of like having a cooking class where the students never cook.”

   There are too many variables to predict how the class will be executed if the school does open up next year. Several exercises, improvs and theater games will be modified to fit social distancing guidelines, and the few productions they do pull off might be recorded for broadcast. However modified and chaotic the schedule will be, Mrs. Gillen is doing her best to keep the drama class active. “The arts aren’t just frills; they’re essential to what makes us human. People were telling stories, making music, dancing and creating beautiful objects long before they were figuring out science and math. Through them, we explore and express our values, beliefs, hopes and dreams.”

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