Duluth High School Thespian Troupe #5160 has been selected as a Gold Level Honor Troupe by Georgia Thespians. This award recognizes “those troupes that do tremendous work in their school and community and achieve a high level of excellence, both on and off stage.” This was the fifth year the Duluth Troupe has been honored by Georgia Thespians, and four of those awards were Gold Level.
The fall has been a busy time for Theatre Director Brandy Carter and her students. In addition to putting together the Honor Troupe application, they’ve been rehearsing “Our Place,” which is their entry for the upcoming Georgia High School Association One Act Play competition.
I had the opportunity to discuss the program with Ms. Carter and four of the Thespian Troupe student officers: Ashwath Tirunellayi, President and the director of Our Place; Sierra McCorkle, Secretary and technical director for the play; Shelby Kemp, Community Chair who plays the role of Anne in Our Place; and Alexis Field, the Troupe’s Historian.
Community service and support
The Duluth Troupe has a strong resume for the community service criteria for the award. It’s something they’ve been doing for years, long before they ever applied for Honor Troupe status.
“One of our former students has a brother with mental disabilities and she pioneered the program,” Ms. Carter told me.
The tradition of community outreach has continued every year since. The DHS Thespians volunteer to work with adults with mental disabilities. “A few days per month, we play theater games with the villagers who live there,” Shelby said. “We’re a bridge back to the theater for them.”
In addition, this year the Duluth team will be partnering with families with autism, offering them free tickets to shows, the Girl Scouts and the high school’s Care Team to wrap and deliver Christmas presents to families in the Duluth cluster.
The troupe’s winter play this year is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and students dressed as the play’s costumed characters will be delivering the presents.
Another part of the award evaluation is to be supportive of other theater groups in the state. “We want to support the state more,” Sierra said.
Shelby added, “It can be a competitive environment, but we can also really be supportive of each other.”
Putting the application together is never an easy process. It’s a compilation of all the work the troupe did in the previous school year.
As the Troupe’s Historian, Alexis was very involved in putting the portfolio together. “It was pretty difficult,” she said. “It’s very involved. None of us had ever been officers before so we kind of went into it blindly. Ms. Carter helped out a lot and, in the end, we got it all together.”
When I asked if they were already preparing for next year’s application, Alexis immediately replied, “Absolutely! We’re already collecting photos that need to go into the application.”
The play’s the thing
Of course, what thespians really want to do is act. Duluth’s Troupe provides ample opportunities to do that. They performed “Our Place” in the high school’s auditorium earlier in October in preparation for the upcoming competition later in the month.
Due to the date of the competition, putting “Our Place” together was different than how things are normally done. Ms. Carter made a point of saying that her students did the vast majority of the work for the show.
Most of Duluth’s school plays are in-class productions. The class is usually pretty large — about 50 people — and eventually the complete cast and crew for a production end up being about 70 people.
““Our Place” was a much smaller cast,” Ashwath said. “About 15 actors and 35 people all together. It was an intimate environment. We got to know people much better than we do in usual shows, but it made it more difficult. Sometimes you get to know people so well that friction happens.”
Everyone plays a part
The students gave me some insight about what their responsibilities were for the show.
“As the Director,” Ashwath said, “my main job is to create the overall vision of the show. What is the message we want to send? How do we take what the playwright has given us and make it our own?”
His job also included planning out the blocking for the show — the movement of the actors on stage — and helping the actors with characterization. For that Ashwath used theater games and exercises to get the actors in the mindset of what it’s like to be a different person on stage.
Sierra’s job as Technical Director is closely related. “I take his vision and use the lighting and the sound and the costume and the props to tell it. I’ve worked with Ashwath since 6th grade, so I can understand what he’s saying.”
For this show, she paid special attention to the music that was played between scene changes. “Those 10 to 15 seconds really set the mood,” Sierra said.
Shelby explained that her job as an actor starts even before the audition. “One of the first things you’re supposed to do is read the script multiple times,” she said. “Know the characters.
“Once you get your part, you do a cast read-through and get the feel of the show. It’s on you from that point to make sure your lines are memorized and that you are building your character actively,” Shelby added. “We are constantly changing our characters and working to make sure we have the energy we need in our scene, using our own personal relationships to build our character.”
Life lessons from the stage
But the best aspect of Carter’s theater program is that what her students are learning will be applicable to almost all aspects of their lives after high school.
“I have to be able to give them opportunities,” she said. “Opportunities to show their leadership skills. And I treat it professionally because I want them to treat everything professionally.”
Part of her professionalism is to be very honest with her students. “I teach them to know themselves,” Carter said. “Stanislavski said the first rule of acting is to know thyself. We spend a lot of time talking about that. How you see yourself may not be the same as someone else sees you.”
Carter also strives to see where her students’ skills are. She puts them in positions to take advantage of their strengths, but also helps them find ways — and reasons — to improve their weaknesses.
“What I have found over the years is that some students are not confident in math, but they really like building things. I get them on set crews, and they start reading tape measures. They realize they need to figure out an angle to make a cut on the miter saw. They’re doing math!
“There are students who say they have problems with reading comprehension and yet they sit down with a script, and they analyze the character and the scene,” Carter continued. “It’s a lot of fun giving them a hands-on experience with math, or language arts or history.”
Her current officers can already see the benefits.
Ashwath wants to go into medicine. “For me,” he said, “theater, especially acting, taught me a lot about empathy — kind of that bedside manner. What does it mean to really feel what someone else is feeling?”
Sierra says she’s learning real life skills. “I’m in the shop painting a wall, and then hanging something on a set and then trying to figure out if the Aux cord is working on the sound board. I get to deal with so many different kinds of people, it’s incredible. Somehow, I have to get along with all of them. I love it.”
Shelby sees a more direct relationship to her future. “I want to go into the world of theater when I graduate. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of. This helps me prepare for that, and it really does help with life skills.
“There are a lot of things I know I wouldn’t be as good at without theater. It helps me with my social skills, being able to stay focused and trying new things,” Shelby said.
Don’t miss it
Carter and her troupe will be performing “Our Place” in the GHSA One Act Play competition on October 27 in Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theater. The competition is open to the public and free to attend.
Their musical adaptation of the animated classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer “will be performed at Duluth High School December 2nd and 3rd.
Glenn is a freelance writer living in Gwinnett County. He writes about a broad range of subjects, including business, music, sports, and nonprofits. His work has been published in magazines and websites nationwide.