James Clemens Theatre soars in, pushing the boundaries



The thrill of performing. The thunderous applause. The sounds, spotlights and special effects. It’s safe to say students in the theatre program at James Clemens High School have a passion for the performing arts. While the theatre students have been bringing the house down since the school opened in 2012, they have continued to prove year after year that they are not afraid to build their castles in the air.

The program consists of beginning, intermediate and advanced levels of both drama and technical theatre. The advanced production class, which is by audition only, handles major shows each year and competes in regional and state competitions, such as Trumbauer. These students dedicate themselves to the class both fall and spring, and they also commit to frequent after school rehearsals.

Drama teacher Amy Patel and tech teacher Clint Merritt work tirelessly each year to instill a love of theatre in their students and help them express that love through hard work put into fall shows, spring shows and smaller performances in between. Since its inception, the theatre program has performed classics ranging from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

The love, however, does not stop there. Students also work to share that love with various organizations in the community, often through service and fundraisers themed each year to fit their biggest show.

“Last year when we worked on ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ Joseph always wore his coat, which is what he was known for, and so we actually raised money to buy coats for underprivileged children for the winter,” said Matthew Cole, a senior in advanced production who has been involved with the theatre program since his freshman year.

Patel said the students partnered with Operation Warm and began promoting their fundraiser in the fall to help buy new coats for those in need. Students raised enough money that fall to buy about 30 coats, but after promoting it more in the spring as the show approached, they almost doubled that number.

“We’re currently working on ordering about 50 coats that we can give to kids,” Patel said. “That’s on top of the 30 we gave last fall. That’s really, really great.”

During the year that the program staged “Beauty and the Beast,” Patel said the students walked dogs. When the production was “Little Shop of Horrors,” the program took the show’s narrative of a plant that eats people and flipped the concept, choosing to work with the local CASA Vegetable Garden, which grows plants to feed people in need.

Battle Clayton, a senior who has also been in the theatre program throughout his time at James Clemens, highlighted the program’s work with suicide awareness and prevention. In October, both James Clemens Theatre and HOSA cooperated to bring a group to the Out of the Darkness Suicide Walk at Ditto Landing.

“It’s a positive event, so it’s good to make an impact,” Battle said.

Many of these types of outreach programs are also the focus of James Clemens’ Thespian Troupe 8070. Eveie Edgar, a senior who handles lighting in tech, is serving as an officer this year. She said this year, the troupe has spearheaded efforts with Manna House and helped out with local pet adoptions, in addition to the suicide walk. Edgar and junior Sarah Kate Woosley, who serves as this year’s lighting crew chief in tech, remembered the joy they felt when holding a big fundraiser at the Target distribution center a couple years ago.

“We just hosted this huge event for the families that worked there, and for all the kids, there were bouncy houses and ice cream cones,” Edgar said. “It was really fun, and it was really nice hosting an event for all the people who work so hard.”

In April James Clemens Theatre partners with Jets Press, the school’s film and photography academy, to put on the 10MIN. The event consists of short films and short plays written, directed and produced by students, according to Merritt. Patel said the play and film festival is something that started the first year James Clemens opened.

“It’s like our tradition every spring,” Patel said. “You get your comedy, your drama, you get a little bit of horror thrown in sometimes. It showcases a lot of students all in one night.”

The James Clemens Theatre program lives by the words “unexpected,” “dedicated” and “inspired and inspiring.” While teachers typically select an existing show to tackle each semester that challenges both drama and tech, Patel decided to take the challenge even further this year. While researching different plays, she could not find exactly what she had in mind. This led her to a “crazy” idea: Why not write and devise an entirely new play with the students from the ground up?

A chance encounter with an Emily Dickinson biography titled “A Loaded Gun” over the summer struck a chord in Patel. That biography helped shed new light on Dickinson as someone very different from the timid, agoraphobic woman history has typically painted her to be.

“Looking at her writing, she’s not scared … She’s not timid,” Patel explained. “She’s very bold and passionate and strong, kind of defiant and loving. She was not morbid, like a lot of people think she was. She wrote a lot about death, but she often wrote positively about death. She was just comfortable with it.”

As she was reading, Patel said she began to envision snippets of what Dickinson’s life might look like, dramatized onstage. That’s where the lightbulb went on. When she presented the idea to Merritt, he immediately jumped onboard. “He was like, ‘Let’s do it. It’s a challenge. We’ve never done that before,’” Patel recalled.

Though the task at hand was daunting, Patel said students were thrilled at the prospect of creating their own work of art together.

“Our students have never been through this process before, so it has been a series of growth opportunities throughout,” Merritt said. “Mrs. Patel and I strongly believe that if the path is less traveled, it is the path we want to pursue.  We want to run toward the things that frighten us, and this project frightened us both – while it also excited us.”

From there, the students and teachers continued researching everything from Dickinson’s life to her poems to life in 19th century New England. “One day we went on a field trip to the Howard Weeden House (in Huntsville) to get a sense of life during that time period and what environment they would be in – what they would see around them, feel around them, how they would live their life,” Battle said.

In late August, Merritt and Patel took it a step further, discovering they had enough money in the budget to travel to Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. There, the two teachers discovered several details about Dickinson they would not have known from simply reading biographies.

The pair visited the Emily Dickinson Home and Museum, as well as two libraries in Amherst – one being the Jones Library – that actually possessed some of the original copies of Emily’s poems. They also had photos and things that people wrote about her, which Patel said was a “critical moment” for them.

“We got up there, and we actually got to go in those libraries and actually hold the poems she wrote, and it was really inspiring,” she explained. “To walk through her home to get a sense of the space and the decor – some things you don’t get when you just look at a photo of it. You kind of have to be there and see it with your own eyes.”

Merritt even got to speak with a woman at the museum who wrote a book about Dickinson to gain some insight on who she was as a person. For example, she would often hide from adult visitors, yet she baked for them and showed kindness in her own way. She was also kind to children, and children loved her back. “I think what we found was some of the lightness of Emily – some of the passion, some of the joy,” Patel added.

The key word with James Clemens’ show – titled “Em-” – is “discovery,” Patel explained. Not only do Dickinson’s brother and sister discover her poems, peeling back her many layers to reveal who she really was, but the audience has a special chance to discover who Emily Dickinson was as well.

“We really wanted the poems to illuminate her life events and her life events to illuminate the poems – really work them together,” Patel said.

Since “Em-” is a one-act play, students have 45 minutes maximum to perform the entire show. Because of this, several brilliant ideas had to be trimmed away when developing the final script. “It could’ve been a much longer play based on the ideas they were throwing around – some of the scenes and the little nuggets that were developed – but then we started trimming away to find what we felt like was really the core of the story we wanted to tell right now,” Patel said.

The play begins with a trunk. Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems she asked her maid to burn after she died. One student thought it would be interesting if her maid hadn’t burned them, and Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, ended up finding them in the trunk. From there, she discovers new things about her sister through those poems that she had never known before.

“That was the idea that we needed that was just a diving board for the rest of it,” Patel said.

Emma Vroonland earned the title role for the one-act play, while Sierra Mittman plays Lavinia, or “Vinnie,” and Alex Pharo plays Dickinson’s brother, Austin. Cole fills two roles in the play: a gossiping townsperson and Thomas Higginson, a famous writer who acted as a mentor to Dickinson, who often sent Higginson letters asking his opinion on her writing.

Clayton is known as “the Gentleman” in “Em-,” but his role also serves as the embodiment of death itself. It’s his job to quietly usher the townspeople and Dickinson’s family members away as they die. Like many stage actors before him, Clayton said he loves the feeling he gets when he performs.

“When I’m onstage, I just don’t feel like there’s an audience,” Battle said. “It’s just a totally different, otherworldly feeling. When you’re in the moment, nothing that mattered at rehearsal or mattered at whatever matters at that time.”

About 50 students comprise the entire cast and crew for the show.

Woosley said there is “a lot of diversity” in the technical side of theatre. Areas of focus include props, sound, lighting, set building, costumes and hair and makeup. With this much behind-the-scenes work contributing to a show’s success, James Clemens has two student technical directors: Sebastian Ortiz and Ethan Blount.

In his own words, Blount described his job as directing just about everything other than acting. Two student directors work with Patel to address the acting side of things. “I make sure everybody gets the sets built, the lighting onstage, the costumes made, the props made, the makeup done, and then I make sure all of it comes together as our director, Mrs. Patel, wants it to look onstage,” he explained.

Two students also manage the stage, and – just as Woosley leads the lighting department as lighting crew chief – each section consists of at least one chief and assistant chief. Many of the students who have contributed countless hours to their respective technical aspects of the play have done so after school only.

“The set is pretty straightforward, and we tried to keep it minimal so we could have quick transitions,” Merritt said. This design incorporated three platforms to give the actors different levels to work with. Patel said they wanted to steer clear of set pieces that were too literal.

“We try to develop physical moments first and things that are a little more abstract, partly because Dickinson’s poetry is abstract,” she explained. “We felt like that was an important element of the show and that it’s not just based on dialogue, it’s actually physical work as well. We’ve got those moments with lifts and with silhouettes and just physical, abstract moments that help to tell the story as well.”

Students in charge of costumes this year also had a special treat: the opportunity to work with guest artist Rita Burkholder of Fig Leaf Costumes.

One of the lighting crew’s most exciting aspects was the use of flash paper. Two actors toss it up onstage near the end of the play, as if Dickinson’s poems have burnt to nothing in the blink of an eye. Edgar handled this and other small lighting techniques on the stage.

“You light it up and it just disappears, and there’s a fire,” she explained. “We had to get a fire marshal to approve that.”

Merritt said all technical elements are student-led, and students help create the designs that shape the play. “The script was not ready when the semester began, so we have tried to collaborate with Mrs. Patel and the actors to provide the needs for the show, as well as (leave) our own artistic fingerprints on the piece.”

According to Cole, James Clemens Theatre has historically done “really well” at the Trumbauer district and state competitions. He and Clayton have both experienced the program advance from district to state every year they have been involved, and they have even been part of two shows to advance past state and earn a highly coveted slot in the Southeastern Theatre Conference.

Although James Clemens did not advance to the state competition this year, Patel said she is proud of the students in putting on a show they devised for the first time. It’s not over for “Em-,” though. Patel said she wants to keep developing the script and was told by several directors and judges that she should pursue publishing it. “When a play is published, the original collaborators and cast are often listed in the title pages, which is exciting,” she added.

James Clemens Theatre is not the first local program to write and perform its own work – Dwayne Craft has written several one-act plays at Bob Jones High School over the years – and though the students’ work might not have been rewarded the way they wanted this time around, there are no regrets.

“This year, the show I wanted to do hadn’t been written,” Patel said. “I’ve heard the saying, ‘If the story you want to read hasn’t been written, then you should write it.’ This year, I was inspired to write for the first time, and I knew all along that it would be stronger with students writing, too.”

Following the excitement of preparing “Em-” this fall, James Clemens Theatre still has plenty to look forward to before the school year is over. The program hosts a showcase for drama students at the end of each semester, and the next showcase will take place May 9, 2019.

“This allows our younger actors to have a chance to showcase their talents for family, friends and the public,” Merritt said.

Patel also mentioned students perform a “15×30” in which students write 15 short plays and perform them back to back in just 30 minutes. The idea comes from a group in Chicago, Patel explained, and used to be referred to as “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.”

Before the 10MIN festival in April, Patel’s advanced drama students will perform a play for the Alabama Thespian Festival in February. Technical theatre students also contribute to the theatre programs at both Liberty Middle School and Columbia Elementary School by designing and building sets. Columbia’s play will be held at James Clemens in February, as well. “We have a student that has singlehandedly designed (Liberty’s) entire set,” Merritt noted. His beginning tech students then built the set.

Of course, the spring show will top off the year on an high note. Since Bob Jones is handling the spring musical, James Clemens will put on a full-length play. The public will have the opportunity to see that show in mid-April.

Many students in the James Clemens Theatre program said above all else, they enjoy the sense of family that comes from being a part of the program. As seniors, Cole and Clayton said they love being able to continue the tradition of passing down their knowledge to the underclassmen.

“People come and go every year, but I always still know them, and I love my family,” Matthew added. “Also, when we do win or whatever it is, we’re able to enjoy that with each other.”

Edgar and Blount also likened the tech side of the program to a big family, and that feeling carries beyond the confines of the school.

“Most people here are really friendly with each other,” Ethan said. “We all hang out outside of this school, and we all do stuff together. Even if we get mad at each other, we can get past that, and we’re all just happy to be here working with each other.”

Though many students will pursue other paths in college, their experiences in theatre have planted the seed for a lifelong love of the arts. Both Edgar and Sarah Kate Woosley said they are considering pursuing theatre at college in some fashion, and Blount said he is “100 percent” going to stay involved with theatre in the years beyond high school. He already works tech for the Huntsville Community Chorus and Kenny Paone Entertainment. He said he plans to keep working in tech and aspires to one day work on Broadway or Disney’s live shows. In addition, he is a strong advocate for theatre and the performing arts. “We love theatre, and it’s a dying art that I think we need to continue pushing for.”

This year’s program will be a tough act to follow, but the students at James Clemens are always up for a challenge.