Creativity

Monologues, Memories, and Meaning: An Actor Reflects on Her Last Meridian Production

By 12th grader Piper

“This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder, produced by Meridian Academy, and directed by Catherine Epstein. In it, you will see a number of fantastic actors. The name of this town is Grover’s Corners, just off the Massachusetts line: longitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; latitude 70 degrees 37 minutes...”

Those were, more or less, the first words I spoke when I walked onstage as the Stage Manager in this fall’s production of Our Town. I expected to forget all of my lines within the first week after the closing night of the production. Now, I think they are going to be with me for much longer.

I have always adored Meridian’s theater program, known as PAA – or Performing Arts and Activism – because Meridian loves acronyms. I had planned to audition for this play because it would be my last chance to get directed by Catherine before I graduated, and I felt like I was in need of many more theater memories with her. In the end, I got that and so much more.

We had a relatively small cast, so a lot of the actors played more than one part. I was cast as the Stage Manager, who was effectively god, and Simon Stimson, the town choir director who also seems to suffer from depression and alcoholism. I was excited about portraying Simon, but less enthusiastic about memorizing so many pages of monologues for the Stage Manager. However, the longer the process went on, the more I enjoyed playing the Stage Manager, and the more I came to love and appreciate all of my fellow actors. From the rehearsals with countless inside jokes scattered through them — George Gibbs mentioning agriculture school for the billionth time, Mrs. Webb insisting her daughter was “pretty enough for all normal purposes,” and many other references I couldn’t name without making this blog post entirely too long — there was so much we bonded over and so many memories we created.

This play was also hard. It taxed me emotionally and I was exhausted by the end of it, and I wasn’t the only one. My fellow actors poured so much time and energy into this production, and it truly paid off in our performances. I’m proud of each and every one of us, and I keep thinking that I couldn’t have imagined Meridian’s Our Town with any other group.

The small size of our cast meant that we all had a lot to carry, and each of my castmates brought something singular to this production. From Nadia’s emotionally raw performance as Emily; to Mary Alice’s infectious energy; to Grace P.’s wonderfully sweet George; to Mara’s curious Rebecca; to Maya’s caring Mrs. Gibbs (even while dead, one could argue); to Juanzi’s wise Mr. Webb, who prevailed in the face of awkwardness; to Nina’s Mrs. Soames, who loved to gossip; to Ezra’s Wally, who was smart about his stamp collection; to Phoebe’s hardworking Howie, deliverin’ that milk; to last but certainly not least, Tempest’s no-nonsense Doc Gibbs. I list all of these actors because without each individual, this play would not have been what it was.

I’m so thankful to have been a part of this production. PAA has always been an important part of Meridian for me, and it’s arguably one of the main reasons I came to the school in the first place. By this point – my senior year – I’ve acted with a lot of the theater community at Meridian, some of whom I joined again in this production, and I’ve grown alongside them throughout that time. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish my time as an actor at Meridian.

This production meant so much to me, and I cannot express enough how thankful I am to have experienced it with each of my fellow actors. Thank you all for being the folks who showed up. This really was our town.

The Mathematics of Activism

By Division 4 students Clary and Hal

Last trimester, the Division 4 Mathematics, Science, & Technology class, Mathematical Modeling, took on the creation of our very own ranking functions. A ranking function takes numerical inputs—like test scores or student:faculty ratios to rank colleges—and weights and combines them into a single output. Many ranking functions, instead of actually ranking multiple possible outputs, are designed with a threshold for making a decision, like whether or not you should call in sick to work. Working together, the two of us chose a politically relevant topic to model with our function: should you attend a protest?

Almost everyone has been frustrated about the political climate at some point, and it’s hard to know what to do with that anger besides push it down. However, sometimes it reaches a point when we need our voices heard, and we need a group of people who will yell with us. Once we’ve reached that point, and we hear about a gathering of that sort, we need to make a decision: do we go to the protest, or do we save our energy?

We brainstormed 20 variables that might be included in such a decision. Some were about safety: your race, your citizenship status, and the size of the group with whom you’d be going. Others dealt with convenience, like the weather and the location of the protest. We also considered how important the protest was. This last category we strived to measure quantitatively and objectively, so in the end we included the number of days until or since a relevant political event, along with a subjective measure of personal importance. We chose distance in minutes of travel and mode of transportation to address convenience. Personal safety is a different question for everyone, as we all have different factors that might make us safer or endanger us in an action of civil disobedience. Immigrants and refugees might be more concerned about potential arrest and people of color are likely to be concerned about potential police brutality. Everyone thinks about who they’ll be with at the time – after all, there’s safety in numbers. We decided on two variables: a measure of police brutality based on race, using statistics from the FBI, and group size to deal with safety. Of course there were many other variables that were worth considering, but these were the ones we started working with. With graph paper notebook pages covered in sketches of our functions, we designed and revised ways to weight these variables and the relationships between them.

One question that kept reappearing was how this score could really be effective for potential protesters, since in reality the biggest question is often the expenditure of personal time. Other work can be just as effective in bettering the world than these actions of raising our voices, which can often feel fruitless. Seeking the right combination of activism and anger is a true challenge. We weren’t able to touch on that, so this function is really just part of a larger question.

We created this function largely because it is of great personal importance to us. Both of us are politically active, but we frequently feel as though we aren’t doing quite enough. This function allows self-declared activists the space to step back from this kind of vocal work. We also specified in the paper that in no way should this function be treated as infallible or always correct. But, we think it’s a good place to start, and deliberating over our function gave us a deeper understanding of this all-too-common decision in these troubling times.

Click here and check out another paper on considering one’s role in solving climate change.

Mass Media of the Past: Division I Prints Letterpress Posters

By 7th grader Ezra

On October 19, Division I traveled to Union Press in Somerville to learn about letterpress printing. The theme of our Humanities class this year is Media & Journalism, and we’ve been exploring those topics from many angles. Throughout the first trimester, we’ve been studying labor in the 1840s, and we’ve looked at how mill girls in Lowell used the media to support their fight for better labor conditions. Letterpresses were a primary tool for mass media in the 1840s, so this felt like a perfect place to go at the end of our unit.

Our main project at the studio at the studio was to make posters for our class debate about the Lowell Mills, which centered on the question: Were the mills ultimately an opportunity or a dead end for the girls who worked there? We were split into teams to gather evidence for one side or the other.

When we first entered the small room, Union Press owner Eli Epstein greeted us. We immediately saw the text our teams had created and the linoleum cuts made from the illustrations that each team’s designer had drawn. We then got a run-down of what we were going to do and jumped into it. We began arranging wood and metal letters, slightly confused by having to position them backwards so the final print would come out forwards. We added spaces and put them into special holders. When we were done, we transferred everything to the printing press and printed the two different posters. Both had errors, which Eli said was just part of the letterpress process – one of us had put an “n” where there was meant to be a “u” – and we each got a print of our team’s poster. In the end, we returned feeling satisfied to have real letterpress prints that we’d designed ourselves.


Changing Tempos, Obscure Chords, and the Gratification of a Musical Challenge

By 9th grade student Jamie

When I found out we were putting on a musical as the spring play this year, I immediately went to Laura, our music teacher, and asked if I could be in the band for the show. She was hesitant at first, explaining that the music in this production was extremely complicated, but she agreed to give me a shot.
I’ve been playing guitar for five years now, and I am willing to admit that when Laura gave me the sheet music my jaw dropped. The pages were littered with key changes, tempo changes, and long obscure chords that took a long time to figure out how to play. Every time I finished practicing, my hands were on fire. But I kept at it.
I only came to a few rehearsals in the beginning, as the actors were learning their songs, lines, and blocking. As in any early stages of rehearsal, we often had to stop in the middle of a song to clarify what was needed or for Laura to explain who shifts work. (Those tempo changes and obscure chords were tough on the actors, too.) When I came back towards the end of the process to help Laura out, and I was blown away by how much the actors and the entire production had evolved!
The songs were fantastically choreographed, with each student carrying out individualized blocking. The actors stayed in character throughout, belting out the songs while simultaneously capturing the comedic creepiness of each of their unique roles.
When the all-day rehearsal arrived on Good Friday, we were all so excited. I spent the first half of the day with Laura and faculty musicians, Jon and Kevin, as well as the director and violinist, Nomi. In our small group, we played guitar, cello, violin, saxophone, keyboard, and percussion (including a lively cowbell)! We practiced each of the songs that Laura had expertly arranged, and within a few hours we were ready to rehearse with the cast. They came in and we ran each of the numbers. The feeling was simply amazing. It began to feel like a real production. All of the pieces were coming together.
These efforts finally culminated in two performances last Thursday and Friday. Friends, family, and fellow Meridianites all came to witness what we’d been working on over the past three and a half months. I went home the first night proud of my friends and myself for coming so far in such a short amount of time. It truly was an amazing experience to be part of such a magnificent and challenging show with such a talented troupe of people.

 

Toil and Trouble: A Student Reflects on Playing Macbeth

By 12th grader Naomi

Having only done theater at Meridian twice before, I never thought that I would play a role as difficult as Macbeth. When I auditioned for the play, it was for practical reasons. Because I’m a senior, this year was my last chance to act in any Meridian productions, but the main purpose of my auditioning was to gain experience. I planned to direct the spring play, and I felt that the only way to be a good director was to know how it feels to be directed by someone else. And so, I went into auditions for Macbeth feeling perfectly at peace with any role I might get, no matter how small. When the casting was posted the following week, I realized that I had been given a role with tremendous responsibility.

With a line count in the upper 600s and a presence in all five acts, Macbeth was a technically daunting character. The number of lines was especially intimidating for me, and I spent many long nights learning them. At the time, it was beyond me how someone could memorize that many words. I had to approach the play in tiny bits, slowly piecing together each phrase and monologue until it finally came together in my head after months of practice.

Macbeth was also an emotionally taxing character to play. I had never before portrayed someone descending into a guilt-driven madness fueled by ambition. I had to work myself into hallucinatory frenzies, furious rages, tearful frustration, and a frightened delirium. After the opening performance I was completely drained, and I actually found myself crying a bit from exhaustion in the car.

“How can professional actors do this night after night for a month?” I asked myself. But the second night was much easier than the first. My head was clearer, and I felt less mentally exhausted afterwards. From this, I realized that to perform as an actor requires not a synthesis of false emotion, but a channeling of one’s own emotion into one’s character, as well as acclimating to playing them in front of an audience. Once I reached this point of comfort and openness, I felt both love and triumph towards a character that had at one point seemed impossible to play.

I went into Macbeth expecting to learn how to direct, which I certainly did. Working with Catherine and Nathan was an invaluable experience, and I gained a great deal of knowledge that will help me as I direct the spring play. What I had not anticipated was that I would learn so much about being an actor – and, despite the challenging nature of my character, I had a great time doing so! This is what truly made the production process so wonderful for me, and I am extremely grateful that I was able to participate.

Division I Learns Letterpress: A Long (But Worth It) Process

By Division I Media & Journalism reporter Zayna

This past Friday, on October 21, the Division One Humanities students went to a letterpress workshop at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. This year in humanities, we’re learning about media and journalism. For one of our projects, every student picked a muckraker they would like to learn more about. A muckraker is a reporter who uncovers and reports on issues that most people don’t know about. Before we went to the workshop, we created a six-word headline from the perspective of our muckraker. It could contain either a topic they cared about, something they found, out an issue they believed in. At the workshop, we would print these headlines on a real letterpress.

We all took the train to Roxbury Crossing and then walked to MassArt from there. Our teacher Catherine and Kenny (a Meridian senior) were chaperones. We walked inside, and there was a small, almost claustrophobic room that contained high shelves with boxes that had different fonts and cuts for printing. Keith, our workshop leader, came to greet us. He talked about the origins of the printing press, showed us different things that people would print, and explained the different materials—some types were made of metal, others were made of wood. With new knowledge in our brains, we took the elevator up to floor nine to work with the actual letterpress.

Keith entered a code onto the keypad and we entered the room. Much bigger! We put our bags down and immediately started touching things, but Keith wanted to set some ground rules, including no horse playing to protect the equipment. Each of us stood by these rectangular things that came up about four feet off the ground. It was time to “set our type,” which meant laying out each letter, space, or punctuation exactly how it should go to be printed. The rectangular cases had little boxes in them and each box had a different letter or piece of punctuation. There was a piece of paper that said where every letter was because it would be impossible to look through every letter until you found the one you wanted. Next, we got instructions about how we to hold the “job stick” that we would put our letters in. We also learned small but important details like why a “spaces” are shorter—they need to be shorter so they will not print. The process of setting type was long. It took most of us around forty-five minutes just to set six words!

After lots of frustration of people's letters falling over, everyone was finally done. We watched Keith put the six-word headers into the bed of the press. We rolled the ink onto our letters and had a look to make sure they were all covered in ink. We “pulled a proof” and it looked pretty good, but Keith needed us to fix a few errors, like fonts that had broken type or incorrect spelling.

Eventually we were all done setting it up again, so we went in and we each got to turn the handle of the press. When the finished product came out it was beautiful! It might have been a long process, but it was definitely worth the time.

Director Dispatches Part Three: On A Joyful Opening Night, Beginning A Farewell

By 12th grader Yvonne, who documented her experience as a student director.

The thump, thump, thump of hammers came to a halt, and the stage finally started to look like the world of the play. To my right, I could hear the soft clack of makeup brushes, the occasional burst of hairspray, and the rustle of clothing on the costume rack. Behind me, three students murmured reminders about lighting and music cues, and another student burst through the door with drinks for herself and other crew members. And of course, there were the voices of actors on stage, running and re-running scenes. All of this noise meant that the play was coming up in just a matter of days. The countless hours of rehearsing, planning, laughing, and worrying began to sink in. Everyone in the production was waiting for these two nights, when we'd finally perform our production of Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution."
 
When that first night finally came, it felt surreal watching the show alongside so many pairs of eyes that were seeing it for the first time. It was also thrilling to see the opening night adrenaline push the actors to inhabit their characters more fully than they ever had before. There were unexpected reactions from the audience, who spontaneously stood up to take a communal oath as the jury and clapped when they heard the final verdict. And it was especially wonderful to see how unsuspecting they were of the real murderer. 

By the last time we reached the final line of the show -- “Guilty, my lord” -- I had never felt happier. I was overcome with joy and pride for the production, along with great sadness that the process was over. I was so touched by the actors’ performances that by the end of the second night, I found myself crying during curtain call and through most of strike.
 
From the very beginning, I knew that directing this play would be exciting, challenging, and entirely worth all of the effort, but now that the production is over, I truly feel the weight of those words. Directing this play was an opportunity that I’ll never forget; I’ve never done something so rewarding in my life. I’m so thankful that I got to work with my friends, my teachers, and the parents of my peers. I am so glad that I got to know the actors better and had the opportunity to see their skills develop. And I am especially grateful that I got to experience this beautiful production before I left Meridian. I can't think of a more meaningful way to say goodbye.
 

Saying Goodbye to Poetry Out Loud

A guest post by 12th grader Elizabeth

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“Finally!” I thought, as Lani finished her poem. I didn’t even need my teacher to call out my name. I knew I was next since, well, I was the only one left. I guess that’s the way my luck works out. At my last Poetry Out Loud recitation ever, I would be the last to speak.

Poetry Out Loud is an annual event at Meridian where every student is required to memorize and recite a poem for the entire community. Though there’s often a grumble when the Humanities teachers announce it in early January, it’s really gratifying to watch yourself progress. The first recitation, you might just look at the ceiling and hope no one notices the peculiar angle of your head. But during the last one, you gaze confidently out at the crowd. Everyone's victories look a little different at Poetry Out Loud, and that’s okay. We’re all learning to improve our public speaking skills and get some poetry in our bones along the way.

In a way, the responsibility of going last was a perfect ending to my Poetry Out Loud career. My first year, I remember barely looking at the crowd and just throwing out my words as fast as possible so I could scurry off stage. But during this final recitation, I looked around at the crowd, and I felt the words come out not as a jumble of alphabet soup where consonants held on to each other for dear life, but as a steady and confident stream. I left the stage feeling proud at how far I had come.

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Interested in more Poetry Out Loud? Click on the divisions to see compilations of their recitations: Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, Division 4.

 

Director Dispatches Part One: Auditions & First Rehearsals

This post is by Meridian senior Yvonne, who will document her experience as a student director over the next several months.

Meridian’s plays have consisted of tragedies, romances, comedies, and political dramas, but I wanted to direct something that we’d never done before. I mean, I love suspenseful and thrilling stories, so I was confident that I wanted to direct a murder mystery.

I had a few scripts to choose from, such as The Bold, the Young, and the Murdered by Don Zolidis, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop, and Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. Some plays were more comedic than they were suspenseful, others had a concerningly small list of characters, and some just didn’t click. However, there was one script that pulled me into its story. Making the set for this play, making scenes suspenseful and engaging, adding the right elements of comedy, choreographing physical scenes, and directing actors in general will be challenges for me. I thought, If I put on this play, I think I’d be proud of myself. Meridian’s 2016 spring play will be Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie.

At auditions, it was awesome to see both middle and high school students showing interest in the production, and they were even more exciting because every actor is so gifted and passionate. There were students who have never been in theatre before, but showed that they had great capabilities. My initial fears around directing were pushed aside, because this was a chance to work with Meridian’s talented and supportive actors. How could I be afraid of that?

Last Thursday, the actors finished their first read-through of the play. They seemed just as, or even more, excited about the script as I was. And ultimately, I think, the more excited a group of actors are about their play, the stronger their play will be. It’s such a privilege to work with these students, and to work behind the scenes with Humanities teachers Catherine and Nathan, and with my friends Emmanuel, Sabina, and Haben, who will be helping me direct whenever they have a chance.

I’m getting a good feeling from all of this. There are so many exciting things happening right now. Even though things will be challenging in the moment, I think they will be worth it.

Jazz is the Ultimate Team Sport: Students Design Music for the Fall Play

Since she began work as a music teacher at Meridian, almost every theater production at the school has featured some element of Laura Jaye’s work. A few highlights include the fairy lullaby she wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the creepy Puritan-era hymns she arranged in harmony for The Crucible; Artemis in the Parking Lot, a musical she co-wrote with Misha Chowdhury; and a long-form jingle she arranged for the Italian farce The Servant of Two Masters.

This fall, Laura’s involvement reached new heights with Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. The play takes place in Berlin during the early 1930s, and Laura said she felt inspired by Kushner’s emphasis on music. The script specifically calls for standards like “Memories of You” along with Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Concerto in G Minor and Mahler’s Second Symphony, The Resurrection. “Music was clearly an important part of the play for Kushner,” she said, describing the potential she saw in these diverse references. “I could imagine a production where they just used recorded music,” she explained, “but I knew at Meridian we had the talent and resources to take it to” — here she adopted a Terminator-esque voice — “the next level.”

That next level took the shape of a weekly music class devoted to designing and performing music for the play. Students read the script and studied jazz standards from 1930 and 1931, specifically focusing on music that the characters would already know. They held music production meetings to identify the play’s dramatic arc and worked together to create a parallel arc with music. After selecting songs, the students practiced and practiced and practiced. “Because of all of the improvisation involved in jazz,” Laura said, “the only way to stay tight in performance is to play together a lot and learn each other’s style.”

The class — led by Laura and comprised of 10th and 11th grade students Jacob, Luke, Max, and Naomi — included jazz guitar, mandolin, violin, percussion, bass, and vocals. The band played as the audience took their seats, performed the songs — including those Bach and Mahler pieces — that Kushner called for, and also served as a live musical soundtrack that the actors controlled onstage. With the turn of the knob on an old radio positioned in front of the band, the musicians came to life, changing songs and volume as characters adjusted the switches. The effect was both lively and mesmerizing.

Many audience members described the invaluable presence of the band in the production, and Laura knows that the experience also had a meaningful impact on the student musicians. Following this experience, she said, “they can all sit down and play a standard together. They’re not scared of jazz. They’ve cultivated an appreciation of that music and how cool it is to make it up on the spot.” In addition, the band fostered a deep and trusting collaboration. “You need to know that others are supporting you when you’re improvising, and vice versa,” Laura explained. “Jazz is the ultimate team sport.”

While Laura created the jazz class specifically to support A Bright Room Called Day, she aspires for musicians to be just as deeply involved in future plays. As it turns out, she’s not the only one looking ahead. Before the production had completed, several of the musicians turned to Laura and asked, “What’s the show next year?”