An Act that will play on
By Tom Larson
Earning high marks in a state competition is just one reason why the Morris Area High School cast of "Lysistrata Interruptae" will take the experience with them the rest of their lives.
The cast received a starred performance in the Minnesota State High School League's One-Act Festival, putting it among the four schools in the eight-school Class A contest to earn the highest ranking possible. That's the One-Act equivalent of winning a state championship.
But as time passes, it might prove to be the least significant benefit the students will take away from it all.
"Lysistrata Interruptae" represents so much more than a talented group of actors being able to interpret a piece of work conceived and written by someone else.
The play was an original work; the cast took ownership. It touched their audiences in ways the cast couldn't have anticipated, and it delved into a timeless and controversial subject that cuts to the core of what it means to live and create in a free society.
"Stepping away from the show, what I remember is just seeing peoples' faces," said cast member Anika Kildegaard. "You could tell they were seeing something so strong and so powerful. People were really affected by what we did on stage."
"It was the most exhausting thing I've ever done in my life," said cast member Katie Monroe.
The play was born the day MAHS drama teacher Dave Johnson learned of a censorship situation involving a Minnesota school in last year's One-Act competition. The school's cast chose to perform the play "Lysistrata."
The Greek comedy, written in 411 by Aristophanes, chronicles the title character's plot to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all Greek women to refrain from sex with their warring husbands until the men end hostilities. The women also succeed in cutting off funding for the conflict and forcing the sides to broker a peace agreement.
The school district performed its version of "Lysistrata" for the public before its competition, and some angry members of the public pressured district administrators to not allow the students to perform the play in the One-Act competition.
The students persisted and forged a compromise that called for them to cut large segments of material from the play. They did, however, insert lines that spoke to an unfair use of censorship power.
Johnson and the MAHS cast took it from there.
Johnson decided to use the school district's experiences as the basis for the MAHS production. Morris writer and poet Athena Kildegaard crafted the original script and the cast spent weeks tailoring it to fit the personalities of the people who would perform it.
The cast dug in, hands-on. They visited with members of the censored "Lysistrata" cast and reworked their own script and interpretation many times. In fact, they were making changes even after performing it for the first time in competition.
"I didn't think audiences were going to like it," said cast member Fiona O'Halloran-Johnson. "We'd start and stop in rehearsals and it never seemed to flow. But once we got on stage, we knew it was a good show and that people were going to get it and understand."
"It made us see how much censorship could affect people and how it can do so much damage," said cast member Ashley Karst.
Audiences and judges took notice, too.
The subsection, section and state performances were all critiqued by three judges. On all nine score sheets, "Lysistrata Interruptae" garnered all excellent to exemplary marks for characterization, vocal quality, technical elements and overall effectiveness.
At the subsection performance, one judge wrote, "Wow! I wanted to wait to write my comments until the show was done so I wouldn't miss anything. This was a spectacular piece of theatre art. ... You had me in the palm of your hand. This was so real and close to your heart."
At the state festival, a judge gave the cast an exemplary mark for overall effectiveness, and wrote, in part, "Extremely well acted and crafted. How powerful to have taken last year's situation and made a strong statement. Not only did you comment on that, but also framed it in historical context. All of the censorship issues from the past set up such a framework. ... thanks for an unusual, but strong show."
"Lysistrata Interruptae" received spontaneous standing ovations at the section competition and state festival, Johnson said.
"That doesn't happen very often in these shows," he said. "It had so much power and dramatic punch. It was high school students and parents - it was the perfect audience for this show."
It resonated well beyond the competition stage.
Karst and O'Halloran-Johnson said their fellow students were talking about "Lysistrata Interruptae" during the school day. Some members of the cast were in another original production two years ago and it wasn't met with enthusiasm by their peers, O'Halloran-Johnson said.
"They said they weren't looking forward to it because we did our own show before and they didn't like it," she said. "But they said, 'This time it was good. I liked it.' "
Cast member Kelsey Mitteness said she was touched that the cast was asked for an encore performance at the University of Minnesota, Morris so that even more people could see it after hearing the buzz following the state festival.
"That meant a lot," she said.
"My favorite part," said cast member Laura Lou Delehanty, "was having people talking about the show. I was not sure how teachers were going to react, I was not sure how people were going to react, and they all thought it was an amazing show."
The crowning achievement might have been creating a bond with the cast of last year's "Lysistrata" production. Members of that cast traveled to see the MAHS performance at the state festival. Members of the Morris cast talked about how emotional the other students were about what they went through when they talked late last year, when "Lysistrata Interruptae" was in its formative stages. A year later and the wounds are still raw for everyone.
"It's still affecting them," Anika Kildegaard said. "Their principal didn't want them to come because he thinks it makes the school and the town look bad. It's still so real to them."
And that - not the starred performance achievement - might be how "Lysistrata Interruptae" lives on in their hearts and minds as they finish high school.
"Sometime in the future," said cast member Thomas McPhee, "when the subject of censorship comes up, I'll be able to say, 'In high school, we did this play about it and it was really awesome,' and then we'll have a great discussion."
"This is what I'm going to remember high school by," said cast member Bess Boever. "This is my last hurrah, my last memory, and it's a good one."