At Flathead High School, Behind the Spotlight

By Beacon Staff

When Flathead High School Theatre presents “The Secret Garden” this weekend, most of the play’s crew hopes to remain unseen, rather than steal the spotlight.

“If everything goes perfectly, the audience doesn’t even notice what you do – they get caught up in the atmosphere and just think it’s magic,” senior Victoria Zimmer said. “But if you screw up, if actors are in the dark because you forgot a light or a car is supposed to be pulling up and there’s no car sound, the audience starts looking around. They know something is missing.”

Zimmer is one of 10 students in Flathead’s Advanced Theater Arts class. During the weeks leading up to a production, the teens design, build and place the sets for many of the school’s plays. For “The Secret Garden,” another 12 students make up the costume, sound and lighting crews that will work behind the scenes during the actual performance.

Come opening night, the focus and the spotlight are on those actors on stage, but director Valeri McGarvey says it’s a team effort that makes for a successful show. “We don’t have stars here,” she said. “You’ll sweep the floor and do all the grunt work with the rest. It’s part of learning to work with the team.”

From high school plays to professional theater company productions, the crew off stage often outnumbers those on stage by as many as five to one. Including the theater arts class, “The Secret Garden” has 26 students working on the play in non-acting roles and only nine students with acting parts. Part of that is the limitation of scripts – McGarvey said many of the best ones have fewer acting roles – but for the most part, there’s simply more that goes into a play than the audience ever imagines.

Mac McGregor, left, and Justin Mailman remove a window on the set of “The Secret Garden” before painting the frame at Flathead High School. McGregor and Mailman are acting in the show as well as helping with the technical aspects.

“The Secret Garden” is based on the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When the main character, Mary, is orphaned, she moves from India to live with her uncle in his England mansion. She discovers a walled garden, neglected and in ruins, and a sickly cousin Colin – both discarded by her uncle as painful reminders of his dead wife. The two find adventure and healing in their “secret” garden. Freshmen Caroline Houser and sophomore Casey Brown will play the lead roles of Mary and Colin, respectively.

For some students, working behind the scenes comes with a welcome and fear-relieving anonymity. It’s an opportunity to stay involved with theater without the stress of performing in front of the crowd. “I’m kind of a theater junkie, but I’m not so much into the acting part,” Zimmer said. “In this class, I still get to work in the space and love it because it’s such a creative outlet, but I don’t have to stress about remembering lines.”

For others, working the tech crew means a chance to still be a part of a play they weren’t cast in or learn about other facets of theater. It’s experience that not only makes them better-rounded actors or actresses, but also increases their chances of finding jobs if they want to pursue theater professionally.

“Everybody wants to be an actor, but there’s a lot more job opportunity backstage if they have the skills to work as a carpenter or painter or on the tech crew,” McGarvey said.

While they may not have to learn lines, there are still plenty of challenges for those behind the scenes, students said. For The Secret Garden, they moved stage blocks that they likened to “large Legos” to form an open garden area and two bedrooms. Using lighting and projectors, they’ll turn the blackbox-style theater into a garden with impressionistic paintings and shadows of leaves on the walls and floor. A three-inch binder with laminated directions sits next to their light board.

David Hashley, producer of Flathead High School’s production of “The Secret Garden,” helps students hang a swing used in the play from the catwalk.

The students appreciate the chance – one they think is especially unique to Flathead’s well-developed theater program – to make the plays, from designing costumes to painting sets, their own. And, they say, they’ll never watch a play in the same way again.

“Now I watch for lighting techniques and notice the sound board and set designs,” senior Bree Malkuch said. “There’s so much more than what you see on stage.”

FHS Theatre will present the play March 13 and 14 in the David M. Hashley Theatre at FHS. The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and performances begin at 7 p.m. Tickets for the production, available at Herberger’s and the FHS Main Office, are $7 for adults and $5 for senior citizens, children and students.