The show goes on, finally, for Rifle High School drama
About an hour before the call for “places,” Rifle High School’s choir room transformed Friday evening into a makeshift backstage studio teeming with hasty thespians.
Students peered into their reflections emanating from massive mirrors. They delicately applied blotches of makeup, facepaint and eyeliner.
Parent-volunteers brushed their children’s hair, and theater director Megan Liggett tended to her students when needed.
Throughout the past two school years, Rifle High School Drama Club has endured COVID-19 regulations, and theater life has been anything but normal.
Part of the 2021-22 school year, student thespians either had to wait until they could perform live once again or, once they were allowed back onstage, they had to act with masks on their faces.
“They still made do and made it happen,” Liggett said. “They just kept pushing no matter what the world threw at them, whether it was masks or they couldn’t perform onstage.”
This is Liggett’s first season as Rifle High School theater director. Previously an eighth grade instructor, she took over for former drama club director David Van Alstyne.
After drama students spent weeks preparing for “Murder on the Nile,” Garfield Re-2 officials told them, on opening night, March 18, 2020, the production was canceled. Drama club was placed on hold until further notice.
Van Alstyne didn’t let the heavy news erode drama, Liggett said. Instead, he started a “guerrilla drama program,” where students could practice and act away from campus.
“He started his own thing that he did completely outside of the school just so that these kids would still have opportunities to be in drama and be onstage and be involved in all of it,” Liggett said.
Through Van Alstyne’s improvisational techniques, students produced “Legally Blonde” out of a large shop in rural Rifle, Liggett said.
When the district reinstated live performances under the caveat the acting must be done with masks, not only did Rifle High School drama do so, Van Alstyne orchestrated an outdoor, off-campus production later that spring.
“They did ‘Into The Woods’ at Centennial Park last spring just so that they could still have a musical and not have to be masked and invite the community members to see it,” Liggett said. “They didn’t charge anything. It was completely free.”
Rifle High School drama isn’t just another run-of-the-mill extracurricular activity, either. With 45 participants among performers and crew, it actually boasts high student participation.
The program is also praised at the state level.
In late 2019, education theater association affiliate Colorado Thespians selected Rifle High School drama to perform “Matilda” before a live audience at Denver’s BellCo Theater. The honor is bestowed annually to just two Colorado high schools.
Amid heightened safety concerns over COVID-19 outbreaks in fall 2021, drama students placed on quarantine used video teleconferencing software to prepare for their previous production. Liggett simply pointed her laptop toward the stage while the quarantined student acted in their living room.
“This comes together because of the work of every single person who’s involved; it doesn’t matter if they’re a lead role, or a background character,” she said. “And our crew is just as important as our lead characters. Everyone’s crucial in their own special way.”
ACTING THROUGH IT
Acting with cloth concealing her face has taught Rifle High School student Izzy Pace a critical lesson.
“That your eyes can only communicate so much to people,” she said. “That a lot of times, you think that smiling looks like, ‘Oh, you’re smiling.’ Then some people are like, ‘Oh, you’re glaring at me.’”
Pace sat beside fellow drama seniors in an empty row facing center stage. They had recently finished dinner — homemade calzones a parent brought in earlier — and were about to perform their second showing of “Footloose.”
Rifle High School drama club has so far performed three showings of the raucous musical, with three more shows slated for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Last week, they also performed live before an audience of district eighth graders, prompting a rush of prospective thespians asking questions and showing interest in participating in high school drama when they enter high school, Liggett said.
Rifle High School senior Rachel Rennie-McKee, 18, said attracting new drama students like these ones has become easier. Though acting with masks has taught performers to enunciate their lines more, taking them off has opened up so many opportunities that were constant prior to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely easier to do a lot of the choreography and singing at the same time without having something over your face, because it’s easier to breathe without it when you’re having to take a lot of deep breaths,” she said. “But there’s also the makeup and the costuming part of that.”
The entire experience has made their love for the stage grow stronger.
“I’ve just learned how much I truly love to perform and how far we’ll go to make sure that we can put on a show,” Breelie Bowen, 18, said. “Shows bring people together and it can bring communities together.”
Eric Watkins, 17, started in drama by the end of his sophomore year. This means the majority of his high school thespian career has been conducted under COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s been interesting. I regret not joining earlier,” he said. “We had a lot of other cooler, funner shows before then. But joining in right when everything was kind of chaotic, it was cool to see how much work was put into it, even in these tough times.”
BACK ON TRACK
Drama parents Holly Davis and Jennifer Glynn help out whenever a student needs some pre-performance touchups.
Some hair needs styling, a brush is in their hands. Makeup? No problem. Break out the kit.
From their perspective, drama club is an invaluable learning tool.
“All human beings need creative outlets,” Davis said. “That’s just something that you have to have as a human being. For so many kids, that’s their passion, and they’re able to grow immensely.”
Davis and Glynn have children who either are former or current Rifle High School students. They’ve seen how their kids relentlessly tackled production amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Davis referred to the situation as a trainwreck, highlighting the stark contrast between how the Garfield Re-2 district treated sports and the performing arts.
Davis said the district didn’t want to take accountability for having to make the choice, putting the decision on public health.
“While sports were going on, they were continuing on and being able to keep their programs,” she said. “Our programs shut down nearly completely. It was totally unfair, and it decimated our choir and band.”
“And theater? There were enough of them to hold it together a little bit. But, really, not much, and it really hurt the program.”
Nonetheless, performing arts kept positive.
“Their director was incredibly positive and was very supportive in whatever the district decided to do, and he made the best of what he had,” Davis said. “I can also speak for our choir and band director that they also have been very positive through this and very supportive.”
That support came immediately, Glynn said, when drama club was told on March 18, 2020, that their performances were canceled.
“For many people that would be devastating, and these kids rebounded and made the most of their high school time and their creativity,” she said. “And, of course, they are choosing to see the best. That gives me a lot of hope for our community.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Rifle High School, 1350 Prefontaine Ave.
When: 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday
How much: $10 general admission; $8 children, seniors
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com
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