April 9, 2009


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Manch high school students stage the Scottish play before heading to Scotland
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Manchester West High School senior Jess Tolz, 17, will leave the United States for the first time in August when she and 15 classmates travel to the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in Scotland as part of the American High School Theatre Festival.

“I am so excited. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tolz said.

West High was nominated last fall as a potential top theater program nationally, said teacher and director Tim Benner. The school has been nominated at least six times over about a decade, although Benner hasn’t responded every time with the comprehensive requested data. “This time I did,” he said. College theater professionals vote on nominees.

Fringe has several levels, including high school, and it’s more than theater. All kinds of performances happen over three weeks in Edinburgh. The city is about the size of Manchester but attracts about one million people in August, Benner said. West brings American Women, by J. G. Barefield.

“The production has an ensemble cast. We play multiple characters throughout the production ... It’s very challenging. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it,” Tolz said.

American Women is about an hour long but “to get our feet wet,” the group brought a 35-minute version to a regional festival they hosted, and then on to the New Hampshire Educational Theatre Guild State Drama Festival, Benner said. Two performers won All State awards, but West was not chosen to attend the New England Drama Festival in Connecticut. The school did get some “wonderful feedback” along with the practice, Benner said.

Heading to Fringe isn’t free. The trip costs about $5,700 per person (four chaperones go, bringing the total to 20). They’ve collected about $84,000 so far. About 13 percent of that comes from fundraising, and the rest is contributed by participants and their families. Some students are individually fundraising to cover their costs. Airfare, accommodation, tours, transportation, tickets to West End performances and venue usage fees are included.

Students, parents, local business people and the Friends of Theatre Knights have all assisted in fundraising, Benner said. Events included a Theatre in Scotland Golf Tourney and a Barnes & Noble book fair and gift wrapping. MCAM is sponsoring a Rock Band competition with GameStop in April (see www.mcam.org). A benefit dinner theater performance of Mayhem & Murder Productions’ Murder at the Café Noir is May 9 at Milly’s Tavern in Manchester. More options are posted on www.theatreknights.com, such as a Bedford Mall Papa Gino’s donation arrangement, the Shaw’s “Neighborhood Rewards” program, and ways to sponsor or buy playbill ads. West needs to raise about $29,000 more.

Benner said they originally hoped to raise 25 to 30 percent of the trip costs, but they realize the economy may be too tight.

They have a Facebook page and use nhtheater.org.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to get the word out,” Benner said. “It’s tough because we have to raise everything ourselves with no help from the school district,” he said.

West has a full-time theater curriculum, which is rare, Benner said. It’s the only one in Manchester. He teaches four levels of theater courses, so West students can take one each year. Tolz is taking the third class in the series, which focuses on technical aspects like lighting. Students have transferred for West’s theater program, Benner said.

“Theater is a big part of my life,” Tolz said. She’s also performed with Bedford Youth Performance Company and at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. She will major in musical theater at Plymouth State University next year, a “fantastic” program, she said.

West’s company, Theatre Knights, is tied into the upper theater courses, Benner said. Any student between eighth and 12th grades in Manchester can join. (Only West students participate in Fringe.) Normally, they must raise about $25,000 annually to cover their regular theater program.

Tolz and a friend are the “property heads” for Theatre Knights’ upcoming production of Macbeth. They’ll be “behind the scenes making sure nothing happens to any of the properties that we’ve collected,” Tolz said. 

“There will be no English accents,” Benner said. This Macbeth is simplified and meant to be accessible, like a No Fear Shakespeare version, Benner said.

Benner sent his student executive board out to poll the student body and Macbeth seemed to be a popular choice. People auditioned in record numbers and the cast includes students from Memorial High School and Parkside Middle School. It also “seemed kind of fitting,” Benner said of the Scottish play.

The Scottish play
What: Macbeth, in modern English
When: Wednesday, April 15, at 3:30 p.m. (matinee is free for senior citizens); and Thursday, April 16, through Saturday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
Where:  Robert A. Baines Auditorium, West High School, 9 Notre Dame Ave. in Manchester
Cost: $6 to $12
Contact: www.theatreknights.com, 582-1253.

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