Thespians helping Thespians

Thespian helping Thespians

BY HARPER LEE

MATTHEW LOGAN FELT READY for his first year as Kingwood High School’s new theatre teacher. He had selected a season of plays and even begun rehearsing for the year’s opening production. In keeping with Kingwood tradition, students eager to be fully fledged Thespians had earned points toward membership in Troupe 4185 by decorating, painting, andotherwise preparing the school’s theatre spaces for the coming year.

But just a week after they put final touches on classroom walls, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in southeast Texas. The Washington Post reported that Harvey unloaded approximately 50 inches of rain — roughly a year’s worth — in a handful of days.

Kingwood High School's ruined scene shop about a week after the flood waters brought on Hurricane Harvey receded.Located just north of Houston in a quiet suburb, Kingwood High School was decimated by the endless downpour and unprecedented flooding. In early September, school officials announced that Kingwdood would not reopen in the 2017-18 school year, and the entire student body would attend another Houston-area school: Summer Creek High School.

“We’re looking at a total loss of everything in the theatre,” Logan says. “When the flood hit originally, the waterline hit the second row of the second level of chairs. The actual stage floor started to bloat.” Logan estimates that the damages to the school’s theatre program come to about $1.2 million — and that’s not including the lighting system, which would also have to be replaced. “We lost all of our furniture — our props, which is 20-plus years of props in some cases. And our scene shop, completely destroyed. All of our tools were destroyed. My office had a waterline of about, I want to say, five to six foot.”

Kingwood Thespians expected a lock-in to be the first event of the school year, but Harvey had other plans. “Our actual first event of the year,” Logan said, “was to help other members of the drama club move their stuff out of their homes and tear down walls.” Logan said his students have risen to Harvey’s every challenge.

One Kingwood senior, Ian MacIntosh, a Thespian and an Eagle Scout, boated to a local assisted-living facility and helped transport those trapped inside by rising floodwaters to safety. “It was surreal,” MacIntosh said. “I was boating down a street that I had driven down the day before. Absolutely crazy and devastating. But we got through it.” Logan recalls the particularly difficult days following the storm, when everyone was there for each other, “sometimes, you know, just to hold someone in their arms while they cried.”

Abbey Fera, director of Thespian Troupe 7528 at nearby Kingwood Park High School invited Logan’s theatre program to her school to share facilities, rehearse, and produce shows. Fera began her teaching career at Kingwood High School about a decade ago. When Logan was allowed back into his school, Fera went with him.

It was chilling and painful for Fera, seeing the ruined space where she had made so many special memories. “You think about theatre and what it gives the kids and how it’s a home away from home,” Fera said. “Then you walk in and you just see — it’s devastating. There’s costumes on the ground, and paint is spilled everywhere. The stage is literally bowed up. It’s not even attached to the ground anymore. It was awful. And of course I just boo-hooed like a baby, because you hate it for those kids. You think of lost hopes and dashed dreams. You mourn the loss of it, but then you try to think of what you can give them that’s the second-best option.”

Just west of Houston, Foster High School, where theatre teacher and Texas Thespian board member Kendra Willeby works, did not flood, but the homes of her family, close friends, and students were hit hard by Harvey. As the water started to rise, Willeby’s family — four people and three dogs — holed up in her one-bedroom apartment to ride out the storm. “We had no idea what day of the week it was,” Willeby said. “The normalcy of your world stops. You sit on the couch and you watch the news. You watch the hurricane, and you get used to alarms on your phone.”

Just as Willeby’s cabin fever peaked, Texas Chapter Director Amy Jordan reached out. Her inbox was overwhelmed with schools and teachers wanting to help Thespians and troupe directors in the Houston area. Would Willeby be willing to organize some kind of relief effort? “I needed to do something,” Willeby said, “but we couldn’t leave our homes. We were on curfew at night. Most of us were still flooded in, so there was very little I could do at that point.”

She suggested a matching program: schools in need could fill out one form and schools eager to give could fill out another. Willeby would then pair those in need with those who could help. She created two Google forms, made a post on Facebook, and turned her attention to other projects — expecting to market and promote the new matching program over the course of the coming weeks.

Later that same evening, she discovered that 25 schools had already offered support to Houston Thespians. Now, more than a month later, Willeby chokes up at the memory of seeing so many schools so quickly offer support. “At this point, everything is raw and everything makes you cry,” Willeby said. Her voice cracks. “People come together in times of crisis. The goodness of people is stronger than anything else.”

Members of Thespian troupe 7944 at Los Alamitos High School in California show off the T-shirts designed and sold to raise funds in support of Kingwood High Thespians.Within days, about 170 schools from across the country had offered support to 20 schools in the Houston area through the Texas Thespians matching program. It became clear to both Willeby and Texas Chapter Director Amy Jordan that even in areas where schools remained intact, the homes of many Texas Thespians and the livelihoods of many families suffered major setbacks or were washed away entirely.

The Texas Thespian board decided that, instead of collecting material goods like costumes and props, they would focus their efforts on raising funds through the matching program to help a Texas Thespian attend the Texas chapter Thespian event. Because of these efforts, 85 Texas Thespians who might otherwise have missed their annual chapter event were able to attend.

“We feel good about the fact that we were able to jump to action to help these kids,” Jordan said. “One thing we keep hearing here is the kids need something positive to look forward to, and the opportunity to go to festival is that for them.”

Jordan placed a call to the Educational Theatre Association’s National Office in Cincinnati, headquarters of the International Thespian Society. Diane Carr, EdTA’s director of chapters and communities, and Hans Weichhart, EdTA’s chief relationship officer, responded by devising a disaster relief program that could match schools that had props, costumes, or scripts they wanted to donate with schools that had lost materials.

Carr and Weichhart hope to develop a sustainable model for how Thespians everywhere could support Thespians anywhere. “People now, more than ever, want to help each other,” Weichhart said. “And the community of theatre and of education is one of great support, so why not continue this? People want to help each other.”

Sarah Specksgoor is executive officer of Thespian Troupe 6861 at Morton Ranch High School just outside Houston. While her family’s home weathered the storm, her father’s business sustained a great deal of damage, as did the businesses of many of his clients. Her troupe, led by Texas Thespian board member BK Goodman, didn’t hesitate: the group volunteered to help clean out her father’s office space, down to the studs in the walls, so the family could begin to rebuild.

“It’s definitely something I’ll never forget,” Specksgoor said. “A lot of my friends had their houses completely devastated. My dad’s business was completely wiped away. And my life just changed in a matter of days. And having to visit these places and volunteer and help rebuild the devastation this hurricane caused — it seemed like a nightmare, but at the same time, it was amazing to see the community I live in come together and support one another and really reach out and share love.”

A beautiful moment from Kingwood High School's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Kingwood Park High School stage.A native of Kingwood, theatre educator and Thespian troupe director Stacy Castiglione at Los Alamitos High School in Orange County, California, spent her childhood attending Kingwood football games and watching productions on the Kingwood High School stage. Matched with Kingwood High School, Castiglione rallied her California troupe, which quickly launched a fundraising and relief effort they dubbed “Houston, We Have a Solution.” So far, the Los Alamitos Thespians have sold T-shirts and wristbands, created a Facebook page and a GoFundMe campaign, and sponsored a backpack drive, shipping 16 boxes of backpacks to Kingwood students in need.

“Our goal is to keep this support going, because there’s been so many awful things that have happened since then that it’s really easy to forget there’s still a big rebuilding,” Castiglione said. “And it’s not just going to go away. We don’t want to forget the people and the programs who have lost things.”

Recovering from Harvey will be a long road for many Thespians and their families. College funds will be drained to repair homes. Savings accounts will be wiped out to compensate for the income lost during weeks parents couldn’t work due to the storm. “We rely on my dad and his business,” Specksgoor said, “and when Harvey hit and that got completely destroyed, we went through a financial crisis. We were like, ‘OK, what are we going to do? How are we going to manage? Pay the mortgage and all the bills?’ It’s been chaotic, but we’ve been managing to come up with solutions and work things out. I think it’s made us stronger overall, in the end.”

Logan and Fera have committed to having the best year possible, complete with uplifting material and exciting opportunities to collaborate. They decided to make the most of sharing a theatre space. Instead of stressing over the complicated logistics of producing entirely separate seasons, the pair seized a rare opportunity: Fera’s and Logan’s theatre programs will stage a joint production of Fiddler on the Roof.

“We’re really excited about what can happen between the two theatre departments coming together and creating one giant combination piece,” Fera said. “Kingwood Park doesn’t do musicals very often. But Kingwood High School has done them for years and has been very successful. It was a win-win for everybody. They still get to do their musical, and we get to learn from them and their success.”

Since Harvey, hurricanes Irma and Maria have slammed Florida and Puerto Rico, leaving poisonous floodwaters and crises in their wakes. Wildfires have scorched California. When disaster strikes, people must rely on their communities to heal and rebuild. Theatre cultivates strong, resilient communities. And Thespians, no matter where they are in the world, are all part of the same community.

“The reason I love theatre, beyond performances and all of that,” Logan says, “is that it’s the one place where everyone’s accepted. It’s the one place where we all come together and we’re all on an equal playing field. What I saw with my students: they lived that. It wasn’t just a lesson. It was because we had theatre in our lives.”  

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