'That's so meta'
While deliberating script ideas on the Robert Gray Middle School stage, each concept more ill-conceived than the next, one actor suggested the idea of a play within a play.
"That's so meta," another actor quipped.
Considering the remarks came in the middle of the theater program's play about the process of putting on a school play, "meta" might be an understatement.
Approximately 80 Robert Gray students delivered three performances of "Stage Fright" — which humorlessly showed the process of producing a school play and all the challenges that go a long with it — in mid-February.
Throughout the play, actors made a flurry of goofy jokes about starry-eyed parents, the generic praise directors bestow upon actors, a "Hamilton"-esque play idea about Millard Fillmore, the disappointment of play affiliates when attendees don't give a donation, a vice principal reprimanding vices and more.
The play also included a sentimental rendition of the song "Glorious" by Macklemore and Skylar Grey, which included pictures of rehearsals; quotes from luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and director Jules Moorhouse; and a tribute to African American men who were the victims of violence.
"It was very emotional," Moorhouse says.
While the play within the play featured actors delivering lines in monotone as they read from a script, the actual play included a bevy of challenging parts, which the actors executed to Moorhouse's liking.
"I was really happy with the performances. I saw their hard work and their dedication unfold on stage, and I saw that they were really proud of themselves," Moorhouse says. "They say we put on flawless plays here. They take ownership over it."
Moorhouse and crew enjoyed bringing Cindy Collins-Taylor's witty script to life.
"She's (Collins-Taylor) amazing. She nailed the middle school theater program. We had so much fun really making fun of ourselves and laughing through it," Moorhouse says.
Hoping to foster a Saturday Night Live-style process, Moorhouse and company started rehearsals just one month before opening night. She wanted her students to adapt to a more intensive, accelerated process. Cast members rehearsed four-to-five times per week, whereas they rehearse three times a week for most plays.
"We're doing kind of like what they do in New York," Moorhouse says. "And they've proven they can do it."
To help the actors assimilate into their roles, Moorhouse told them to imagine what the characters eat for breakfast, the intricacies of their house, their friends, job and dreams.
But in this play, actress Rory Davis wasn't just playing any run-of-the-mill character. As the director of the play within the play, she played the role of Moorhouse.
Davis would examine Moorhouse's gait and hand gestures and her fellow cast members even began to treat her like the director by the end of rehearsals.
"Students would say 'Jules, Jules' and she would turn around. Sometimes kids would get quiet when she walked up," Moorhouse says.
Moorhouse says a robust pool of students try out for school plays at Robert Gray because she tries to foster a fun environment — and because acting can be a cathartic break from life's challenges.
"We build things as we go, but have a strict policy of no cellphones. We want them to be in the here and now," she says. "I believe that's why they come. Whether they're having a fight with their best friend, a crisis at home, a bad day, I've seen firsthand them be able to heal through theater."
Eighth-graders assume the lead roles, while the younger kids are typically cast in supporting roles. By the time they reach high school, many actors have three years of experience under their belt.
"The difference of maturity between sixth and eighth grade, they're not just in different ages but different planets by eighth grade," Moorhouse says.
Though theater is often the victim of budget cuts in the public school system, Moorhouse believes it's as important as core classes such as math and science.
"I think what I'm seeing is lives change firsthand," she says.