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Watch What Happens — BHS Theatre Students Hit the Stage Again

By Sara Musgrove

 

 

Football and farming are often what Texas towns are known for, but Brownwood continues to add to that list and has emerged as a place with quite a bit of artistic talent. Brownwood High School’s Theatre Department has shown itself to be a group with heart, passion, and grit. “And the world will know that we’ve been here!” Voices rang out from the stage this past autumn as eighty-seven students presented the story of the great newsboys’ strike of 1899. The youth-led strike against William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper price increase displayed the power of resolve and courage in the battle against giants. BHS theatre director Shannon Lee sees that same potential in her students. While the newsies were a ragged army without a leader, the four-hundred theatre students in Brownwood ISD, from seventh through twelfth grades, have multiple teachers who rally for their potential. “We’re very accepting of everybody, and encouraging,” said Lee. “There’s a place for everyone in theatre. If you’re into fashion, do the costuming.  If you’re into music, do the music. If you’re into technical elements, do lighting. If you like dancing, do choreography. If you like singing, sing. If you like tools, build the sets. If you like art, paint the sets. Theatre incorporates everything else. That’s one reason why it’s grown so much. That, and we just love each other. A lot.”

 

In the middle of her fifth year at BHS, Lee has found her students to be spreading the excitement throughout the halls, pulling friends into auditions, initiating a camaraderie among the classes, and helping with the tactical elements of producing a play. “The kids produced [Newsies] with guidance from me,” Lee stated, somewhat adamantly. “Sarah Boyette and two assistant choreographers, with the dance team behind her, choreographed the entire thing. They not only choreographed it, they taught it to their peers. Lilly Lee is a freshman, she’s fifteen, she costumed the show 100 percent by herself. Just to put clothes on eighty people is a lot of work, but she made every single one of Katherine’s costumes with her own hands because she knew she wanted to enter them into the Texas Thespians Competition.”

 

Lee offered another example of creativity and determination among the students leading the charge. “There’s a huge tap number, ninety-two measures of a tap dance, that Carlee Richardson, a fifteen-year old sophomore, choreographed and taught to forty-five of her peers, who had never tapped a day in their lives. And they don’t even have tap shoes, they had washers and screws screwed into the bottom of their shoes. They didn’t even get those until the week of the show.” That popular tap dance plays along to the lines of the song, “King of New York,” illustrating the power of the press and how even the powerless can seize the day. “Give life's little guys some ink,” the character Katherine sings, “and when it dries just watch what happens. Those kids will live and breathe right on the page. And once they're center stage, you watch what happens.” Students had the opportunity to create, and it has brought a new life to their potential. “All I did was enable kids the opportunity to do it themselves, to learn from that and grow from that,” Lee said. “That’s why I teach. Because I get kids who come in and learn that they can do something and that they’re good at something that they never thought they could do before.”

 

The “Newsies” production has closed, but it opened a new season for the BHS theatre department. The department has grown in popularity with the students as they seek bigger challenges, including the reinstatement of an honor society and participation in a state-wide competition. On May 14, 2018, forty-two students were inducted into the BHS’ International Thespian Society (ITS) troupe. The ITS allows students in grades nine through twelve to complete a sufficient quantity and quality of work in theatre arts, maintaining a certain grade point average, as well as a positive attitude. The ITS serves, “to honor all of the good work, the hard work they put in, while keeping up their grades, some of them holding down jobs, some of them being the caretaker of their family, and still managing to get all that done,” Lee said. To be eligible for entrance into ITS, students must first have ten points, which they gain from work in full-length play productions or One Act Plays, or even with Brownwood’s Community Theatre. “Until you’re in a play, you don’t really know or realize the amount of work and time that goes into a production, even a small one,” Lee said. "Honoring that is what the International Thespian Society is all about.”

 

Additionally, in this new season, thirty-three students attended the Texas Thespians Competition. The students attended workshops, classes, auditioned for scholarships, and submitted projects to be judged. The convention had over 8,200 attendees. Of those, 654 qualified to compete at the national level. Of Brownwood’s group, twenty-eight made the cut and hope to travel to the week-long competition. Students submitted projects like hand-made costumes, set and lighting designs, group musical numbers, and more. “In the beginning of October, we had every student who wanted to compete pick what they wanted to compete with,” Lee said. “We had several who wanted to compete with solo musical performance or solo acting performance, so we brought them all here on a Sunday.” The students spent the day performing for three judges, who ranked the submissions. The top competitors are the thirty-three students who traveled to the competition. This consisted of a musical number, “The World Will Know,” from Newsies, a musical trio who performed “Requiem” from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” an acting group of eleven students who performed the opening scene of “The History of Tom Jones,” a farce set in the 1700’s, six technicians, a stage management student, two lighting design submissions, a set design, a costume design student, and a costume construction submission. “I don’t think that our kids realize how big of a thing they did until I start putting it into numbers,” Lee said. “There’s a 6A school which took 120 kids and twenty-one of theirs made it to nationals. Our kids are doing a great work. They picked their pieces, they worked on their own choreography; they’re very independent. It’s pretty phenomenal.” This first year of attending the competition has set a high bar for the students, who appear to be meeting their goals far beyond expectation. “Lilly Lee was the only technician who qualified for nationals,” Lee said. “There were 420 costume construction pieces and Lilly was one of five who got a perfect score from all the judges. They just don’t realize—because they don’t have anything to compare it to—how wonderful and big and important a thing they’re doing.”

 

Now the next big step will be to get to the national competition in Lincoln, Nebraska, from June 24-29. The students are taking on the challenge, finding ways to help with costs and prepare for the level of competition that comes with such an opportunity. “They have taken it on themselves to do ‘The Grinch’,” Lee said. BHS Senior Josh Lawson has been assigned the role of director for the show, which was double-cast so as to give more students opportunities to be a part. While the national competition will offer opportunity for these students to receive further critique, many will be able to audition for scholarships with the panel of 120 universities. “One young lady was offered a $3,000 scholarship from her audition at the Texas Thespians Competition,” Lee added. “There is money out there for these kids. NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon, bigger name schools which our kids aspire to go to, will be there. If I can do anything in my power to get them there, I will.”

 

The family-friendly show, “The Grinch,” will be presented for the community January 11th -13th. Four 45-minute performances will be offered:

 

Friday, January 11th at 7:00 PM

Saturday, January 12th at 2:30 PM and 7:00 PM

Sunday, January 13th at 2:30 PM

Tickets are $5.00 per person.

 

Shannon Lee provides her students with a sincere and authentic passion for art, for courage, for connection. It is carrying through to not only the stage, but to the students’ lives, as seen by the growth in the department and their success in competition. “Newsies” brought a renewed vigor to the theatre community at BHS and will continue to show the students, “instead of hawking headlines we’ll be making ‘em today. If they work hard and believe in what they’re doing, there is truly nothing they can’t do.”