A new type of adventure

New theater teacher prepares cast and crew ahead of fall play


Photo by Quinn Martin

Encouraging his actors, theater director Alex Smith sits among a sea of empty seats while holding the script in the Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 26. Smith watches intently as the cast acts out scenes, taking mental notes as well as written notes.

Yelling from the center seats of the auditorium, binder open, exclaiming tips to the cast, it is clear that this is not the first time Alex Smith has directed a play. Whether sitting on the ground in the gymnastics room, or getting into the action by doing fight choreography with the cast, Smith can rarely be found focused on something other than the play.

After a year where Smith led a series of radio plays last spring, Smith shifted away from traditional play choices with “She Kills Monsters,” a drama-comedy by Qui Nguyen that debuted in 2011. Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American playwright and screenwriter. It tells the story of Agnes Evans, a “completely average woman” and senior in high school, played by Edith Pendell (11) who goes on a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) adventure to discover more about her sister, who died in a car accident a year before. In the story, she discovers that her sister was hiding her queer identity and learns about her struggle of acceptance.

Smith, along with much of the cast and crew, felt this play was important because it addresses important, less commonly represented topics such as queer identity, overcoming grief and accepting loss.

Smith says he was also attracted to this play because of his own identity in high school as “a queer, D&D playing nerd.” But the main reason he chose this play was to bring new life to the theater program. He felt that with a play that addresses less mainstream issues that many high school students face, it can help support students who are struggling with acceptance and identity themselves.

“As soon as I read this play, I thought, I wish I could have seen this when I was a teenager.” Smith said. “This reaction is what caused this play to be in the back of my mind as a potential fall option, but my main reason for picking it was to draw new students to this theater program.”

Holding her cast-mate Edith Pendell (11) in a fake choke, Maya Ball (10) who plays Evil Tina focuses on the scene as Zoë Cruz (11) and Emily Walters (11) look on into the auditorium on Oct. 26. (Photo by Adan Quan)

One of those new students is Leo Kendall (9), who uses they/she pronouns. In their role, Kendall plays the timid teenager Kelly and the alter-ego they takes on for the campaign, Kaliope Darkwalker. Kendall is new to high school theater since they just started high school. However, they do have previous experience in theater, having performed with All of Us Express and Michigan Family Theater since they were five.

 Kendall has found their role in this production to be fun, but it has really challenged them in terms of finding the character’s persona, which is different from who they are as a person. 

“I really appreciate the chance as it has given me such a challenge and expanded my skills as an actor,” Kendall said.

They’ve also found the play to be queer-positive, something they appreciate. In addition to this positivity, they’ve found moments in the play that they think would challenge the audience to think about seemingly normal activities that are being exaggerated while on stage.

Another student participating in a high school theater performance for the first time is Jack McGuire (11). McGuire plays Miles, the boyfriend of Agnes who he said “acts as a foil for many of the fantasy elements of the play.”

“I know they did the radio plays last year, which was very cool. But I didn’t have a chance to participate in that,” McGuire said. “So I really wanted to make sure that coming back into a fully in person school year, I would get the chance.”

A new aspect included in the upcoming play is fight choreography. Many of the cast  members have enjoyed the fight choreography and felt it was a completely different experience that helped them grow as actors. In the play, they’ll use the choreography to fight monsters throughout the campaign.

Casting a magic missile and saving her comrades, Tillius, played by Zoë Cruz (11) practices fight choreography in the gymnastics room on Oct. 27 along with the rest of the cast. (Photo by Quinn Martin)

“The fight choreography is really fun. I’ve done a bit of fight choreography in the past, but this version is definitely much more technical,” Kendall said. “It’s cool to be taught by someone who has been on stage and has done this in front of huge audiences.”

The cast were not the only people who experienced the difference of the play. The crew have also had a much different experience. Stage manager Gloria Zink (12) leads the tech crew and acts as an assistant director. She said this set is more meaningful to the crew, since they were in charge of designing it.

“So after having designed the set and having changed it so many times, I’m really attached to it,” Zink said. “I think we all are really attached to it because it’s just sort of a process.”

In addition to designing the set, the crew also built an entirely different style of set than the set from previous productions. Rather than past sets, where they built houses and full rooms, this show required building set pieces and making a show with a stage picture. 

“We have been getting really creative and I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s different this year,” Zink said. 

Smith realized the set could have been challenging but didn’t want those obstacles to cause him to scrap the play.

“I didn’t let the tech challenges turn me off from a piece that I knew was going to click with audiences and speak to today’s students,” Smith said.

Smith is also grateful to have four returning crew members to help him manage the crew without an adult tech head.

“I’ve got returning students who have been incredible, getting that enthusiasm and organizing everything out there,” Smith said. “They made [rebuilding the crew] so much easier.”

On the cast side, Smith is appreciative of how willing the new members of the cast are to learn and take risks. He feels like his cast can work best once they’re comfortable with each other.

“It’s only once the actors feel safe and comfortable with each other, that they can really commit to the material,” Smith said.

With this close environment, both the cast and the crew feel that they have built lasting friendships that are unique to the theater program. Despite the workload, the enjoyment of spending time with good friends while doing something they are passionate about outweighs the commitment.

“No matter how stressful this place is, no matter how much we have to do, it’s the only place I would want to come after school,” Zink said.