Magazine: Revolutionizing Bearden Theater

Les Misérables has pushed the musical theater department to its extremes by taking on a colossal and costly production, requiring extensive vocal ranges and presenting heavy themes such as prostitution, poverty, and death. The theater production in Bearden theater history.

Many people might scoff at the idea of a high school theater department deciding to put on the renowned opera Les Misérables.

Bearden theater teacher Mrs. Leann Dickson did for years. Then auditions for musical theater started in March, and her skepticism started to soften, at least a little bit.

“We just had guy after guy come out of the woodwork, never seen them before with these beautiful voices,” she says.

However, it still wasn’t an idea she was even considering until one of the judges who helped her out with auditions turned to her and said, “You should do Les Mis.”

“I looked at him in horror and said ‘You’re crazy,’” Mrs. Dickson says.

After some reflection, though, Mrs. Dickson decided she was crazy enough to take on the task with her students. She felt that with the amount of talent and leadership among her students this year, that they could successfully take on the challenge of such a massive and rigorous production.

Challenge 1: The Vocals

One aspect that makes the idea seem nearly impossible is the vocal abilities needed by the actors. The ranges for each role, particularly for Jean Valjean and inspector Javert, are extreme even for the most seasoned performers, let alone high schoolers.

“Both of the roles for the leads are difficult for any male voice type, whether it’s baritone or tenor,” first year choir teacher Mr. Evan Headrick says. “It reaches into the highs and lows for all voice types; it takes someone who is very flexible.”

Luckily, the Bearden theater department has many talented, young actors, including junior Thomas Anderson and senior Alex Clevenger. Upon being cast as the two leads in May, Anderson and Clevenger began working with experienced theater performer and West High School alum Coke Morgan to further their vocal abilities.

“Work [with those students] focused on how to use their voices smartly, so that they will hopefully always be singing to the best of their ability,” Morgan says.

Not everything has gone according to plan to help accommodate the actors’ ranges.

“Originally, [the Bearden theater department was] supposed to lower some of my songs, which didn’t end up happening,” Anderson says. “As I’ve been told, it’s very expensive to get different keys on these songs.”

But Anderson has adjusted, and he’s ready to perform in one of musical theater’s most demanding roles.

“Alex and Thomas are both doing a phenomenal job with covering [the vocals] even though it presents challenges to them, but they’re meeting those challenges,” Mr. Headrick says.

The range of vocals is not the only difficulty the actors are facing. Les Mis is a musical with intricate vocal arrangements that are new to most of the cast. One of those devices is recitative, which is where dialogue between people is sung, not spoken.

“[Recitative lines have] really weird rhythms and melodies that are going into saying something where generally you’d say it and it be done,” Anderson says.

With all of these intricate arrangements and styles being combined to form one performance, Les Mis can easily be classified as an opera.

“[Anderson and Clevenger] are both naturally gifted performers and are very hard workers, too,” Morgan says. “They have put in a lot of hours to make that [performing the roles well] happen.”

Challenge 2: The Acting

Les Misérables takes place during the French revolution. People during that time had to deal with hunger, poverty, and discrimination. Women often turned to prostitution during that time in order to earn enough money to survive. All of these themes of deprivation help build the story that is Les Mis, but the challenges arise when these harsh themes have to be portrayed by high schoolers who have never known such hardships.

“[Bearden students] have never experienced what it was like to not eat at night, to not have the basic rights of citizens, and so I think that’s the hardest part is us portraying that in an organic manner,” Anderson says.

One character in Les Mis that exemplifies how people had to overcome hardships is Éponine Thenardier. Éponine grows up with her mother and father in rough circumstances, and her mother and father are trained thieves who steal from all who come through their inn.

Éponine is played by senior Sophie Bobrek. Bobrek worked over the summer to prepare for her role, and the hardest part thus far is connecting to the character’s story.

“I don’t know that type of suffering,” Bobrek says.

Mrs. Dickson has been working with all of the actors in order to get them to a level where the audience will be able to feel like they are in 1790s France.

“Every character moves in a specific way and reveals stuff on stage in a specific way, and so we’re having to completely change how we move our bodies for this show and how we carry ourselves,” Anderson says.

Leads and background actors alike have a similar upbringing, and it is not one that lends itself to easily portray war.

“Trying to get white upper-middle class West Knoxville kids to grasp poverty and not being able to have the rights of privileges of education and choices in jobs is really hard to do with young people,” Mrs. Dickson says.

Challenge 3: The Production

Following the life of a man for 17 years, Les Misérables tells a grand and lengthy story, and in accordance with this massive story comes a massive set. The sheer scope and magnitude of this year’s set poses many difficulties that the Bearden’s stage tech students are prepared to tackle.

Unlike previous productions, such as The Addams Family, where the entire play takes place in one night, Les Mis covers a much greater time frame, and every scene needs its own specialized set. Because of this, not as many set pieces can be reused or repurposed, creating a logistical challenge in moving the large set pieces in an already cluttered backstage. There are more than 30 set pieces for Les Mis – a comparatively vast expansion to the previous plays that current theatre students have worked on.

“With such size, we have faced all sorts of new challenges such as finding space for the pieces backstage,” assistant stage manager Andrew Granger says.

To help in taking on the challenge of designing the set, the drama department has enlisted the help of Mr. Stephen Krempasky of Masskus Productions, an award-winning stage design company based in Knoxville. Krempasky’s experience in creating elaborate sets has helped in making the set more ornate, while also helping to accurately portray its respective time period.

“He’s very efficient, creative, and thorough,” Granger says. “Our crew members have adapted very well to the change in style and are producing impressive work.”

Despite the rigors of such a large and demanding set, for many students this has also been an interesting learning experience. Props crew head Delaney Sears expresses her excitement in working with new techniques to decorate the set.

“[The props crew has] stained wood, used feathers to create texture, painted a chair to look like an ornate religious furniture piece, and more,” Sears says. “It’s all things we never got to do last year.”

Krempasky’s artistic vision combined with Mrs. Dickson’s leadership and the persistence and teamwork of the stage crew all coalesce to create the theater department’s most grandiose and difficult set to date.

“We’ve created beautiful sets to tell a beautiful story, and we’ve learned so much about teamwork and theatre by doing so,” Sears says.

Challenge 4: The Cost

With expansive sets, ornate hand-crafted costumes, and technically marvelous sound and lighting techniques, Les Mis may not only prove to be the most difficult Bearden theatre production, but also one of the most expensive.

Les Mis is a widely regarded musical, known for its grandeur and overall length; such an eminent production comes with inherently costly rights. It costs around $6,500 alone just for legal permission to perform Les Mis.

“That’s the legal rights. That’s not one paintbrush or one costume – that’s legal permission,” Mrs. Dickson says. “Write a musical – a hit – and every high school in America will do it, and they have to pay you something.”

An estimated $7,000 will be spent on musicians to orchestrate the suite that plays alongside the challenging, operatic vocals that have gone on to underscore the overall difficulty of the musical.

Mrs. Dickson has expressed some relief in how much money was saved in creating the lavish wardrobe. Many of the decorative costumes were handmade and/ or donated from parents, slashing down some of the cost. It is still astonishing to note just how many costumes and costume changes there are in the production.

“We saved a lot of money with [the wardrobe],” Mrs. Dickson says. “It was probably going to be about $8,000, and we spent probably $2,500.”

Adds Granger: “There are 38 people in our cast, and they all have five to nine costume changes throughout the show.”

Additional costs can be attributed to more enhanced, sophisticated technical features that will add to the visual beauty of the production.

“This year, we are adding haze, fog, and two angles of scenic projections,” Granger says.

Mrs. Dickson estimated that in total, Les Mis will cost around $40,000. This is a $10,000 increase from last year’s production of The Addams Family and is well above the approximate average of Bearden productions: $26,000.

While the total cost may be infinitesimal in comparison to a full-scale Broadway version, the overall price of Bearden’s production of Les Mis is as grand as the scope of the entire musical, but the experience and memories of the theater students, teachers, and audience will be truly priceless.