Local theater-goers were treated earlier this week to a stellar performance of the play “Beau Jest,” in which a Jewish girl hires an actor to portray the (fictional) man of her picky parents' dreams and falls for the impersonator.
The spirited comedy was entirely performed and produced by advanced-level students of the La Cañada High School's theater department in a prime example of learning by doing.
The theater department is not just where students go to learn acting, says Justin Eick, theater teacher and chair of the school's fine arts department, it's a professional-level entertainment resource in the heart of the community. What's more, this year, all La Cañada Playhouse performances are free to the public for the first time ever.
“If you're looking for a nice, free evening close to home, I don't think you could do much better than the La Cañada Playhouse,” Eick says.
When Eick came to LCHS seven years ago from Glendale Centre Theatre, where he'd worked as director of education and outreach, he pitched the idea of creating a slate of 32 performances to be staged over a four-year period. By the time the rotation began again, he reasoned, students who have worked on or seen productions in the previous rotation will have graduated.
In years past, performances came with a modest $10 ticket price to help defray production costs — lighting, props, costumes, sets, etc. But now that the second rotation of the productions has begun, the theater department already has the necessary accouterments on hand.
And this year, thanks to La Cañada Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, who made arrangements to help cover some logistical costs and labor after talking with Eick about the program, the department was able to eliminate admission costs.
“That bit of help was phenomenal,” Eick says. “We are now able to offer these plays for free to the entire community. It was an amazing gift.”
Sally Spangler, an LCHS high school college and guidance counselor and longtime supporter of the school's fine arts program, says La Cañada Playhouse performances are comparable to those offered by professional organizations.
“One of my treats in life is to stop what I'm doing in my office and go witness the genius that is the theatre department,” she says, also noting the school's other top-notch arts and music events.
Live audiences enjoying a high-quality performance is just the end product of a program designed to involve youth in the production process from start to finish. Students handle sound and sets and do the hair and makeup themselves, says senior Kylie Brakeman, who's been acting in school since eighth grade and is now in the advanced class. She played Miriam, Sarah's well-meaning mother, in “Beau Jest.”
“There are a lot of kids who've been with the program a long time, doing lighting sound and stage management, and they're getting really good at it,” Brakeman says. “We're all this kind of community and we have to trust each other that we're going to get it right.”
At a time when California schools are required to adopt new state Common Core standards — which emphasize collaboration on hands-on projects that mimic tasks students will be expected to perform in college or at work — this kind of real-world learning is ahead of the curve.
“We have our kids producing a full season of professional plays that will be performed over several days in front of a live audience,” Eick says. “That kind of experience is what Common Core is striving for.”
So far, the program seems to be working. Graduates have gone on to study drama at Emerson College and New York and Carnegie Mellon universities.
Before Brakeman started acting, she says she was a shy kid, somewhat aloof. Now she performs outlandish characters on stage, is in the campus improvisation group ComedySportz and sings in the choir. She plans to continue to explore her passion in college.
“I just really like it,” Brakeman says of acting. “It's fun to be someone else for awhile and make people laugh.”
La Cañada Playhouse's next performance, “A Christmas Carol,” is Dec. 8 through 10, at 7 p.m. at La Cañada High School, 4463 Oak Grove Drive. Admission is free. Visit www.lacañadaplayhouse.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.