Here’s a reminder of how high school theatre programs typically work: A core group of theatre kids, who can be broadly identified as either actors or technicians, are led by experienced students, most of them seniors. They train younger students how to manage a sound board, how to build a set, how to handle a leading role. The seniors graduate, their apprentices replace them, and the cycle continues.
At Apex Friendship High School, there are no seniors; almost no one knows how to do any of those things.
The school is in its second year, and just its first with a theatre program. This week’s production of “High School Musical” is the first theatrical production of any kind the school has ever performed, and few members of the cast and crew have any theatre experience at all.
Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at Apex Friendship High School’s new 800-seat auditorium. Tickets are $10.
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Without the institutional knowledge Apex Friendship theatre director Athena Reaves has leaned on throughout her career, the rehearsals leading up to opening night on Thursday have been nothing like what she’s used to.
“We don’t have anyone who knows how things work,” said Reaves, who taught theatre at Middle Creek High School for 10 years. “We didn’t have any tools, we didn’t have any lumber, we didn’t have a paint sink. All of these things that normally get solved over the years of doing productions, or even doing one production, we have to solve them all at once.”
For that reason, “High School Musical” was a strategic choice for a number of reasons. It enjoys higher name-recognition among teenagers than the typical Rodgers and Hammerstein production, which Reaves hopes will guarantee a solid crowd. And because the actors are playing high school students, the show’s costume budget is essentially zero.
“High School Musical,” which was first released in 2006 as a TV movie starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, is about a group of teenagers who slowly begin to push back against and grow beyond the expectations of their school’s rigid social hierarchy.
Those same lessons about identity and self-assurance resonate with the production’s cast and crew, but also with Apex Friendship’s budding theatre department and Apex Friendship High School itself, which is full of students who haven’t yet seen how a “real” high school is supposed to operate.
“I feel like the stakes are a little bit higher because it’s our first impression,” said sophomore Abby Russell, who plays the role of Taylor McKessie. “There are these other schools with fantastic theatre programs, and we want as much respect as they have.”
One week out
The Thursday before opening night, the production isn’t where Reaves hoped it would be. Reaves stayed home Monday with the flu, and several snow days in early January ate into precious rehearsal time that her group of first-timers desperately needed.
Thursday, the stage manager is out with the flu. These are just a few of a long list of problems that a more robust theatre department could expect to tackle through delegation, but Reaves and Apex Friendship theater technician Kirt Landry are more or less alone in managing solutions for all of them.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., Reaves lays out the day’s work: a cue-to-cue run of the whole show designed to mesh the actors’ movements with tech’s light and sound cues. Her brief monologue ends with an uplifting line from one of the musical’s most popular numbers – “We’re all in this together.” The cast groans.
“My mindset has been we have to build something here, so they have to have fun,” Reaves said. “So I need to build a program and an environment that they will want to come back to every day. We’ve got to be serious, we’ve got to be focused, but we have to have fun, so it entices them to come back.”
Reaves makes no bones about how difficult this experience has been, but she said she’s found reward in the growth she’s seen thus far. Among the leads is a sophomore band student named Elliot Stanford, who plays Troy, Efron’s character. This will be his first time on stage, and the magnitude of the role almost was too much. He went to a pre-audition workshop and initially decided it wasn’t for him. He skipped the audition.
“The day after auditions, the chorus teacher pulled me aside and told me, ‘You’re really dumb. You should have auditioned,’ ” Stanford said. “And I was like, ‘OK, thank you.’ And then I got a callback, and now I’m here.”
Stanford said he’s grown into his role, although he’s still scared a week before the show of forgetting his lines and letting everyone down. That’s the kind of worry first-time actors tend to work through in smaller roles – not as a Zac Efron-inspired lead.
“There’s this tremendous amount of pressure to do well,” Reaves said. “Elliot said, ‘I can’t do that, I’m just a sophomore.’ He was going to quit on us again, but he ended up sticking it out. And he’s one of the strongest people out there. It’s why I love my job. They don’t know they can do it.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan
If you go
When: March 16, 17 and 18 at 7 p.m.
Where: Apex Friendship High School’s auditorium, at 7801 Humie Olive Road, Apex.
Cost: $10. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online plus a $1 service fee at apexfriendshiphs.seatyourself.biz.