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Murray Journal

Throw in the unexpected, but Murray High students still plan to bring theatre to the stage

Oct 21, 2020 01:14PM ● By Julie Slama

Even though Murray High theatre students presented “Peter and the Starcatcher” with homemade puppets virtually as their live production was canceled with the soft closure of schools, this fall, they hope to open their season with an in-person presentation of “Little Women.” (Screenshot)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Murray High theatre director Will Saxton ushered out students March 12 when Murray School District went on soft closure, he didn’t expect what all life was going to throw at him.

Like schools across the state, that soft closure was extended—ultimately through the end of the school year. It was one week before “Peter and the Starcatcher” was set to be performed on stage and the day before individuals were to compete at region. 

Fortunately, they already performed their student-devised one-act play the day before and were awarded best large ensemble for 5A in region 6.

Still his students persevered, presenting “Peter and the Starcatcher” with homemade puppets over Zoom and reciting their lines so parents could watch the production.

“It was a poor substitution for the actual performance, but it was still kind of cute,” he said.

Murray students also created a radio performance with music and sound effects of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and presented that in late May.

Students also voted on a fall musical, selecting “Little Women,” as it has a smaller cast and will have a simpler set, which during the restrictions made in place for COVID-19 pandemic, seemed more appropriate, Saxton said. Auditions were held online in May.

An added bonus was that “Little Women” is a show that Saxton felt his substitute director, Amy Garrard, would excel at as he told students in June that he would be not directing, but stepping into a producer role, since he was diagnosed with cancer. 

“I didn’t notice any symptoms until the end of April and a week later, I was having surgery,” he said, adding that doctors told him his prognosis was good. “It’s been a challenge, but life is full of those, especially these days. I really appreciate Principal (Scott) Wihongi, Supt. (Jen) Covington, the district, the board working with me, and Amy and my sub, working with the performing arts team. We have amazing leaders who are super supportive.”

As of late August, Saxton had completed his chemotherapy treatments and was waiting until he recovered to return to school. He hopes to be back Nov. 2, 10 days before the musical run of Nov. 12-13 and Nov. 16.

“If school is still in session, I’ll be happy to go back. We’re very disciplined in wearing masks and our social distancing and I’ll be extra careful,” he said. “Amy is someone I really trust and is doing a terrific job.”

Garrard, who helped with last year’s production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is working with choir director Alan Scott with music and dance company director Leesa Lloyd with choreography, both of whom have worked alongside Saxton for 15 years. She also is working with band director Jordan Beckstead with the orchestra pit. 

Murray School District currently is reviewing guidelines to determine if audience members could attend in person, but Saxton said he already knows that “we can’t fill the auditorium like we usually do.” He isn’t sure if the district will follow nearby districts’ guidelines of in-person audience at 25% capacity or if they will livestream the show.

“We’re wanting to have students have the joy of going through with the show, experiencing it on stage,” he said. “We haven’t planned any further than the musical as I don’t want to get students hopes up for a season just to be shut down again. If school stays open, we’ll plan our theatre season and stick with it, one show at a time.”

Saxton is teaching online early this fall and has a long-term in-class substitute who is helping until he returns. The substitute also is helping him coordinate their ensemble piece of “Julius Caesar” and individual events that will be submitted in late September for the 44th annual high school Shakespeare Festival, which will be virtual. Although winners are expected to be announced Oct. 9, Saxton said he has students participate for other reasons.

“Shakespeare is a key component to our program, and we do it right off, as students learn so much about theater, the history of theater, and influences in all education,” he said. “They’re getting professional quality feedback, which is just priceless.”