High school drama, well represented

It’s a theatrical crowd, this year’s drama club at Rappahannock County High School. Bright eyes, emphatic gesticulations and exclamations erupted from four of the club members as they honed their skills Monday afternoon in preparation for the Rappahannock-hosted One Act Play Competition on Nov. 2.

At least some of the spark, and the students’ emphasis and enthusiasm, comes from drama club director and English teacher Russell Paulette, who shouts out cues to the performers as they play out a scenario where the unlikeliest of characters are trapped on an elevator that nearly crashes.

Drama Club director Russell Paulette observes closely as (from left) Will Thompson, Jane Purnell, Justin Smith and Parker Critzer struggle in a broken-down elevator during an improv game. Photo by Alex Sharp VIII.
Drama Club director Russell Paulette observes closely as (from left) Will Thompson, Jane Purnell, Justin Smith and Parker Critzer struggle in a broken-down elevator during an improv game. Photo by Alex Sharp VIII.

This year, the club includes 40 high school students, many of which meet in the auditorium after school, practicing improv under Paulette’s direction.

“I did theater in high school, and so it’s fascinating to be a part of it again, from a different angle,” Paulette said. “And these students really come together through participating in these plays. I see it in the halls, in the lunch room, as well as on stage. No two performances of any play will ever be the same — nor should they be — and that’s amazing. That’s an experience they alone share, and one that no one else will understand.”

Last year, for the first time in Paulette’s six years at RCHS, the students ended up competing at regionals, competing against a cast and crew run by Paulette’s former drama teacher, which Paulette thought was an interesting plot twist. “And with this year’s script, and the enthusiasm I’m seeing coming from the students, I think this year we’ll be really competitive — knock on wood.”

Each school in the One Act Play competition has 35 minutes to perform, which includes five minutes to set up and five minutes to break down the set — and during the performance, the students will call the shots while Paulette sits helplessly in the crowd.

This year, the 28-student cast will compete against six other schools in their conference, performing a play called “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury, which is based on a short story of the same title, out of his collection “The Illustrated Man.” The plot involves seven astronauts in a space shuttle that gets torn apart by meteors, and they are slowly drifting apart from one another, with only their radio helmets to stay in contact. So as they’re able to maintain that radio contact, they just keep talking until they finally drift apart.

And an interesting set twist: The seven astronauts will be performing without stage lights. Instead, seven “shadows” (cleverly hidden cast members) will illuminate the performers with flashlights, following their every move, and 10 to 12 other cast members will cast star light onto the stage.

Sixteen-year-old Jane Purnell will play Captain Hollis, the captain of the failing ship. And 17-year-old Justin Smith plays Applegate, the second in command and the rabble-rouser who causes a lot of contention over the course of the play.

“I just love being able to make people laugh, showing that I have a talent,” Purnell said, noting that since she joined the drama club in ninth grade, she’s discovered confidence. “And I quickly realized that, wow, I can be this different person and people won’t know it’s me.”

Smith said one of his older friends in high school convinced him to attend a drama club meeting in the hope that Smith would come out of his shell and get more out of high school.

“If it wasn’t for me joining this here drama class, I have no idea what I’d be doing,” Smith said, nestled in an auditorium seat between Purnell and 15-year-old Parker Critzer, cracking jokes and smiling widely. “This changed my life. I’ve made some really good friends.”

Critzer, stage manager and — as Paulette put it — general consigliere, said that she’d been anticipating drama club since elementary school, when she watched her older friends perform.

“And I was so excited, because when I got up here, not only were we doing plays, we were doing musicals — and I love musicals,” Critzer said, upon taking a break from serenading Smith with her ukulele, which she hasn’t yet managed to incorporate into a school play. “I haven’t busted out the ukulele yet. Emphasis on yet.”

Will Thompson, another musician and fan of musicals, missed drama last year while he was at military school, which left a void. But now that he’s back at Rappahannock, Thompson’s thrown himself headlong into this year’s effort to win the conference in November.

“I’d say drama’s not for everybody, but everyone should definitely find out if it is for you,” Thompson said. “And if it is, then stick with it. Because this is a great program. We’ve got a great teacher here. We’ve got great people in it. And you get some recognition for your work.”

Though hosting this year’s One Act Play Competition might involve extra headaches and paperwork for Paulette, he said it will be an honor to bring other schools into “our house” for the competition — a competition which he says is unparalleled.

“Part of what’s amazing about competition: Theater is very different from sports, because the students from other schools come together,” Paulette said. “Sometimes when we’re waiting on the adjudication, it can take hours, and when that happens, usually the crew gets bored and starts grabbing kids from other schools and playing improv games and having dance parties and all sorts of nonsense. And then when we walk away, even if we’re not walking away with awards, we usually feel like that was a good experience.”