1001 ways to act in a middle school play
The executioner wore tennis shoes, scuffed white sneakers peeking from beneath his solemn robe.
He deftly raised his scathe in preparation for the beheading.
Suddenly, Victoria Otte’s voice rang out.
“Shoes,” she yelled. “You can’t wear those, you need black.”
The executioner pulled his dark robe as it to cover the offending shoes.
And so it went.
The Gruening Middle School was in the midst of rehearsing for their upcoming “1001 Arabian Nights” performance.
The play follows a man who, after executing a series of wives for being unfaithful, marries a new wife who keeps him intrigued through 1001 nights of storytelling.
Otte, who teaches language arts and drama at the middle school, adapted the script to fit the needs and sensibilities of middle school interests and acting abilities.
Auditions were held back in December. According to Otte, no students were turned away.
After roles were cast and the script fine-tuned, Otte’s biggest challenge was balancing the story with student strengthens.
“You have to be aware of the audience,” she said. “You want them to get something out of it.”
Some of her students, she believes, possess natural talent.
“They don’t even realize it yet,” she said. “For some, it’s going to be a memorable middle school experience. For others, it could be a stepping stone.”
She turned back to the stage.
“Someone should be setting up the next scene,” she prompted, with a brisk clap of her hands.
Otte believes in pushing students past their level of comfort.
“It’s not about them being embarrassed but finding an excellence inside of them,” she said.
Talking about acting
Ian Soellers, 14, who plays multiple parts in “1001 Arabian Nights,” has been acting more than half of his life.
His first show was “The Princess and the Pea.”
“I act because I like to be a little show-offish,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to get to show off my skills and become a less embarrassed when I talk to people.”
He practices his lines at home, reading them over and repeating them out loud.
“After that, I go downstairs and say them to my gramma,” he said.
Soellers has a part in the upcoming TBA Theatre, Inc. “Fiddler on the Roof” production, a part that involves dancing, which he doesn’t see as his strong point.
“I’m not used to doing it in my regular life and it’s a little bit difficult for me,” he said. “Actually,” he added, “it’s more embarrassing than difficult.”
Elizabeth Petersen, 14, has acted in other productions including a small part in her sister’s high school play, “The Magical Dinner.”
“I played the part of a pig,” she said with a laugh. “My lines were, ‘Oink, oink.’”
What Petersen loves about acting is that it forces her out of her comfort zone.
“I get to experience another life, and another part of myself that I wouldn’t have known existed,” she said.
Hailey Walser, 13, plays the female lead in “1001 Arabian Nights.” She was also in last year’s school play and has performed in various drama class productions.
“Acting feels fairly natural,” she said. “It’s kind of like a second life.”
She tries to obtain as much information on her character as possible so that she can, in a sense, become that character.
“I love it because I don’t have to worry about anything else. I’m totally in the moment,” she said.
Walser is in almost every scene, which means a lengthy amount of lines to learn.
“I wouldn’t have cast Hailey if I didn’t trust she could learn her lines and be responsible,” Otte said.
Walser admits that it isn’t always easy. She’s had to make sacrifices.
“I’ve turned down babysitting jobs and told friends I couldn’t do things,” she said.
Still, she feels it’s a small price.
“I want to go to college for the performing arts,” she said, “I know this will help push me forward.”
The Gruening Middle School’s production of “1001 Arabian Nights” takes place at 7 p.m. Feb. 26-March 1 in the school’s multi-purpose room.