Oscar Wilde believed theater to be one of the greatest of all art forms saying that the theater is “…the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Many St. Paul people find something special within the theater, whether it be onstage, backstage, or anywhere in between.
Inclusivity in Theater
High school junior Mallory Carslake wants everyone to be involved in theater and is removing barriers that limit accessibility to the stage for other high schoolers. She’s been involved in theater for most of her life and the theater has been a safe space where, regardless of what is going on in her world, she can be herself and have an outlet to express herself. Which is what sparked the creation of The Spartan Spotlighters, a Pleasant Valley High School (PV) theater program for students with special needs.
Inspiration came in the form of a 2022 Penguin Project show at the Center for Living Arts in Rock Island, owned and operated by Dino and Tina Hayz. As a sophomore, Mallory approached PV Drama director Christina Myatt with a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation on bringing a similar program to life in the PV school district. Mallory sought administration approval and worked together with special education teachers to ensure a successful experience for all. From there the Spartan Spotlighters were born.
The artists in the Spotlighters program range from any special needs student in 7-12th grade from the PV school district.
Mallory, now a junior at PV, helped lead the Spartan Spotlighters in their inaugural performances of The Wizard of Oz. Rehearsals began in February 2023 with the show opening in late April. Mallory served as Assistant Director alongside PV Drama director Christina Myatt and was involved in all facets of the creative process including the selection of the show.
“We wanted to choose a show that made the appropriate accommodations possible. We couldn’t have the huge set pieces that some shows require,” Mallory said. “We needed a large amount of space on the stage for the performers to move around and a larger cast opportunity for more performers to be involved. The Wizard of Oz is perfect for that. We had a cast of 25 actors paired with 25 mentors so, at times, we had 50 students onstage together.”
With The Wizard of Oz, many accommodations were made onstage and Mallory was highly involved in the collaborative creative process. Thinking outside of the box in the execution of certain elements of the show really paid off.
“We all came together to brainstorm ideas. For instance, the munchkins needed to be shorter but the actors couldn’t kneel so we came up with ideas as a group. ‘What about rolling chairs? What about boxes on wheels?’ If anyone had an idea, we’d consider each other’s thoughts on these decisions. It was a really collaborative process.”
The student mentors, all PV High School students, were an integral part of the production. They worked side-by-side with the actors, building close bonds and helping the actors both on- and offstage.
“The production team and the mentors wanted artists to maintain their autonomy onstage and to shine in their roles. Because of that, mentors wore black or were incorporated into the scene so the focus was always on the artists. Everyone has a larger sense of inclusion because of the show. New friendships are being made that otherwise wouldn’t have been. My favorite part of the process was watching rehearsals and witnessing these students approach everything, whether it be blocking or choreography, with such enthusiasm.”
Into the future
While Mallory has another year at PV, she sees the passion of all of the students continuing to carry the Spotlighters into the future.
“A lot of the mentors this year were freshmen and sophomores so there are people who can carry on and continue this program. If you’re involved in the program and see how it works, it’ll be easy to step up and move into those leadership roles. We want this to be an inclusive space. Theater is a safe space for me and lots of other people so I want PV Theater to be a place for all students.”
The Spartan Spotlighters project even earned Mallory a Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award. The Uncommon Student award program is aimed at Iowa students who are “motivated and community-minded.” In March, as rehearsals for The Wizard of Oz were kicking off, Mallory found out she was one of just 15 Iowa students to receive the award.
Mallory continues to stay busy with other theater projects. From participating in Double Threat Studios productions to dancing alongside her brother Jack in the production of Footloose at Countryside Community Theatre this summer, she doesn’t find a lot of downtime and that’s the way she prefers it.
A return to the stage
About every eight or so years, Phil Hart gets the theater itch. His last show, Jesus Christ Superstar at Countryside Community Theatre, was almost exactly eight years ago. This summer, he’ll be back on the North Scott High School stage, this time as Reverend Shaw Moore in Footloose The Musical.
Footloose The Musical is based on the 1984 classic movie musical by the same name starring Kevin Bacon and featuring many of the same boppy 80s songs. The story centers around Ren, a teenage boy who moves to a small town with his mother after his father leaves them. But Ren is not used to the small town atmosphere, especially this town’s edict banning dancing. Ren quickly finds himself at odds with the local preacher, Reverend Shaw Moore.
While many may see the Reverend as nothing more than the story’s antagonist, Phil takes a much more complex, human approach to portraying the character.
“The play is all about forgiveness. That was one of the first things the director said when we started rehearsals. After I read the script, that’s very clear. The story is about the father without a son, meeting the son without a father. It’s a musical with some beautiful storyline weaved throughout. There is reconciliation and accepting the loss of a child and the grief that goes along with that. If you wanted to, you could play this character as a caricature to the hilt and people would probably get a kick out of it but when you read the script, there’s a lot more substance there than just being the anti-dance guy.”
Phil is onstage among a cadre of St. Paul people! The cast includes Britta Lloyd, Jack and Mallory Carslake, Anna Harris, Ellerie Hurley and more.
In addition to his occasional stage performances, Phil has served as a board member of Countryside Community Theatre for many years. Phil and other board members select shows each season, hoping these selections will spark enthusiasm and bring patrons out to the theater. For Phil, it’s a way to stay connected to the theater during his years between shows.