Actors dive deep into human connections in a setting that could be anywhere in America

by Jim Boyle

Editor

The Elk River High School drama club will perform “Almost, Maine,” a play most assuredly about relationships.

“But if that’s all you take away from seeing this show, I implore you to come and see it again,” director Samson Perry said.

The show opened on Friday, Nov. 12, and has 7 p.m. performances on Saturday, Nov. 13; Friday, Nov. 19; and Saturday, Nov. 20. There is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 20.

Perry chose the play in part because it makes him nostalgic about New England, where he grew up. But he also chose it because of the flexibility it allowed him to work with his cast in new and exciting ways without the threat of the coronavirus dashing the whole production like it almost did last fall.

Show structure provided safeguards

Audiences will be invited to observe nine entirely different slices of life, all of which take place in a variety of venues over the same 10 or so momentous minutes in perhaps the tiniest of all towns, Perry says.

“We meet the characters whose very foundations are shattered as they discover things don’t always turn out the way they might expect,” said Perry, who is directing his third Elk River High School fall play, including last year’s that was drawn out and finally performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a play by William Shakespeare, in February due to the impacts of the COVID-19 on his cast and its production schedule. He has also directed six one-act performances for Elk River High School.

By having small casts of two or three people per scene, Perry and Tom Imholte, the technical director, were able to institute social distancing measures that meant if one actor got COVID-19, the whole cast would not have to quarantine.

“We could lose a scene, but not a play,” Perry said.

The structure also allowed Perry to work with his cast where they were at in their progression as actors in live theater. The native of Manchester, New Hampshire, said live theater in high school is a lot like triage on a battlefield. Like uninjured soldiers, those with the most experience need the least help, while new actors required more work.

“You spend a lot of time developing the newer students,” Perry said. “You don’t always get to work with the veterans as much as you would like to help them progress further.

“With this show we were able to do a deep dive into character development.”

Student direction opportunities abound

Another big reason for the selection of the play was to give more students a chance to work on directing. The intricacies of most plays force students to choose one aspect of the stage experience — acting, directing, tech or set design. “Almost, Maine” allowed students to get experience directing one scene and acting in another.

In addition to having nine different student directors assist, there were also multiple different lighting and sound designers.

Luke Rumreich, senior and veteran of the tech department, says the technical components of the show are some of the most complex he’s worked on.

“We’re using so much different tech for everything,” he said. “There are a lot more moving pieces, so people are getting a lot more experience in several different areas.”

Perry said students were allowed to learn more and check to see if an interest in direction, sound or lighting was also a passion of theirs. Directors also get to see the performance from another angle, which helps that individual progress as an actor.

“I had students say to me, ‘I see why you were asking me to do it this way,’” Perry said. “(Student directors) get to see what goes into a scene other than learning their lines.”

Student actors lend authenticity to roles

“Almost, Maine,” a play by John Cariani, includes over-the-top metaphors that innocently carve their way through the show.

“It’s cheesy, and it owns its cheese,” Perry said.

Cariani wrote the script for people in their 20s and 30s, and once it began being performed in high schools, he was awed by the universal nature of the production and how well it came across to youth who are eager to believe and hope for what can happen in life.

Elk River High School junior Andy Clark credits the real-life relationships these students have for lending authenticity to the production.

“There’s a big sense of community with this show,” he said. “Everyone is family here.”

Willow Haar, also a junior, has been in numerous productions at the high school and said this play helped her find new ways to express herself. “With other plays, it’s been fantasy, or more of a visual story, but this one feels more real and centered.”

The play centers around a small town in Maine, where the sense of community and connectedness is evident between the scenes.

“In these little snippets of humanity, we witness moments of complete strangers willing to share their hearts and take the real risk of getting hurt, lifelong friends learning to fall for the thing that has been right in front of them all along, partners left wondering where exactly all the time went and if they’ll ever be able to get any of it back, and even long overdue reunions serving to remind us all that even the saddest of memories often once started with the greatest of hopes,” Perry wrote in his director’s notes. “I tell my students that a part of me loves this play because it makes me nostalgic for New England, which is where I grew up. But the truth is that the stories within this play could make anyone nostalgic, regardless of where they are from, because the true setting of this play is not actually ‘Almost, Maine.’ It’s almost ... anywhere.”

Student art featured through projections

The play relies heavily on projections, Rumreich says, because of the scale of the set changes: “We just don’t have the backstage space for it.” A bonus, though, is that this opened another avenue for students to contribute to the production. All of the projected images are student-created art.

“It provided the opportunity to showcase the art that students can do,” Rumreich said.

Perry says “Almost, Maine” helps serve as a reminder that even in times when our differences might often appear insurmountable, it’s in the shared experiences of humanity where people notice all of that which we still have in common.

“We all hope. We all fear. We all love. We all hurt,” he stated. “And there’s nothing more human than that.”

Ticket information

Perry said “Almost, Maine” is best suited for middle school and high school students as well as adults of all ages. He added there is nothing in the play like violence or adult language, however, that would be jarring to children under the age of 13.

Tickets cost $5 for students and seniors and $7 for adults. To order tickets online, visit https://bit.ly/3wxdPe6.

The show must go on

Interestingly, the pandemic did impact the performance dates, but only by one week. The show was supposed to open on Nov. 5, but had to be delayed a week after Perry tested positive for COVID-19 while he was on his honeymoon with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. The couple ended up driving back and quarantining. Thankfully, Perry’s wife, Whitney, did not get COVID-19 on their long car ride home. Both had gotten vaccinated, and Perry’s symptoms lasted only a few days. The couple finished isolating, new dates were selected and final play practices were held. Thankfully, the show will go on, Perry said.

(Editor’s note: Beth Balmanno contributed to this story.)

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