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Looking back on “US”

Reflecting on a once in a lifetime opportunity

“If the plane hadn’t been delayed…that could’ve been them.” With that line, Minnehaha Academy’s first full-length student-written play ended and revealed that most characters might have died if not for the plane delay they so resented. The play held many important messages tailored for the Minnehaha community, and the world, but also meant a lot to its writers, and performers. Us delivered not only a surprising ending, but many lessons from and for its creators.

Because of the explosion in August, the schedule for theater this year had to be changed. Nicholas Freeman, theater teacher and director, determined that the fall play should be student written, and named it Us, intending it to have multiple meanings, for instance, Upper School, Unified Storytelling, and just the word, ‘us.’ It was performed in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, which came as a shock to many, as the Guthrie is a very prestigious theater. In writing a play, creating characters and scenes to reflect personal, important topics and performing in the Guthrie, these four seniors did something entirely different from what they had done before.

“Mr. Freeman decided that he wanted a bunch of writers for the show, so he chose four senior writers to primarily write for it,” explained senior Seth Retzlaff, one of the playwrights, along with Caelin Hoben, Greta Hallberg, and Ray Tippin. “We each decided on an issue or a topic that we wanted to address in our writing, and then we wrote characters and scenes according to those issues.”

Reactions

Senior Greta Hallberg explained how she felt when she first heard the play would be student written.

“Honestly, I was a little shocked. Well, a lot shocked.” said Hallberg. “I was shocked, and doubtful. I was very skeptical.

“I thought: ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this, we’re not playwrights. How are we going to write a show with all these high school kids who don’t know how to do that? How are we going to start this process? How will we get it done in time?’ I had a lot of questions.”

Elsie Craig, a freshman, who played Tiffany in the play, was initially uncertain upon learning the play would be student written, but liked where it went in the end.

“I was a little hesitant about it, like most people were,” said Craig. “But the final outcome, I thought, was better than what we could’ve found that was already written.”

Universal themes

Many people, after seeing the play, were surprised it wasn’t directly about the explosion. According to Hallberg, the writers decided early on to focus on issues everybody could connect with.

“Well, first of all, we really didn’t want it to be about the explosion,” said Hallberg. “Not directly anyway. We all thought, ‘that’s way too soon, that’s way too close to home, I don’t think we can write a show directly about the explosion, and I don’t think we’d be able to portray it in a way that was appropriate. So we dealt with a lot of universal issues that everyone can relate to.’

“Like themes of suffering, or embarrassment, or loss or being scared of what people think of you. For me, I thought it might be interesting to talk about inequality and women’s issues.”

Women’s rights

Hallberg’s character did deal with women’s issues, specifically when a man in the play hit on her. According to Hallberg, that part of the play became more important after it was written.

“I think it ended up being a lot more relevant than we [thought it would be], with all the recent cases of sexual harassment and misconduct,” said Hallberg, referring to the storm of sexual harassment accusations that have come out recently.

“And we wrote this character before a lot of that came to light. So I think it’s interesting how it came full-circle.”

‘Being LGBT’

Senior Ray Tippin, another writer for the play, decided to make his character gay and to write his scenes to bring up LGBT issues in a school he feels doesn’t talk about them enough.

“I wanted to talk about being LGBT — I guess my character was just G  — because it’s not something really talked about at this school, and it’s a really big part of people’s lives,” said Tippin. “I think it’s really important and we need to talk about it. There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with feeling you need to talk about something but you can’t, and so I thought I’d take a crack at it.”

Military experience

Caelin Hoben, a writer for the play who was new to acting at  Minnehaha, wrote her character as a soldier on R&R (rest and recuperation leave). She chose this largely because of her parents. “I’m a military kid. Both my parents served in the military for a combined total of over 50 years. So I’ve been exposed to it. I know in the future I want to be in the Air Force, because I want to follow in their footsteps.

“My father has been deployed twice and it was difficult for him to leave us, and it was difficult for us to see him leave. I wanted to show other people, what it’s like when you have R&R and you have only a small amount of time to spend with your family.”

Processing grief

Seth Retzlaff chose something a little less obvious for his character and his scenes, which revolved around the issue of grief, and dealing with loss.

“I addressed the idea of grief, especially after an event that changes you, and leaves you trying to figure out what is happening,” said Retzlaff.

“I feel like it’s something that’s really prevalent in the MA community. The most important thing I wanted to address was that each person deals with it differently, and each person grieves differently, and that’s okay.

“The three cousins were definitely the ‘grief characters’ I focused on, and I was really happy with how they turned out, and how they showed different perspectives on it.”

Retzlaff later went into further detail on how his characters dealt with grief differently.

“With Kevin [Retzlaff’s character], I wanted to pursue a character that was keeping his grief inside, and trying to help those around him first. But with Kevin, we see this kind of character transformation where throughout the show you see his feelings start to emerge.

“[It shows] that each of us has to deal with grief eventually. And it comes in different ways and it comes at times that you wouldn’t expect, but that was what I was going for.”

Performing at the Guthrie

The other unique thing about Us was that it was performed at the Guthrie theater. The Guthrie being a very famous theater, acting there was strange and interesting for many of the actors.

“I was really excited, because it’s the Guthrie, of course,” said Retzlaff.

“At the same time, though, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s at the Guthrie!’ That was at the point when we had just started writing it. But everything turned out really well, and we were all so happy with how the show turned out, and to perform it at the Guthrie made it even better.”

Missing home

Despite this excitement, however, many of the actors who had been at Minnehaha for a long time missed the old theater at north campus.

“The building is so connected to my memories, so connected to why I love Minnehaha,” said Hallberg. “Of course, I still love the school, and have had to make new memories in the new space, but so many of my good memories, especially in the theater program, have been tied to that space, in that theater.

“ Even the crappy dressing room and warming up in the choir room. A lot of the positive memories I have from that place have been tied to the theater.”

Tippin elaborated on the positive memories he had in the theater at north campus, but explained how it wasn’t actually the space that made it special for him.

“Y’know, I think the old theater is what I miss most about Minnehaha,” said Tippin. “But I don’t think it was anything about the actual theater.

“The thing that made it special for me was that it was where I made so many friends, it was the place where I felt like I was a part of something–in a school where I didn’t always feel I was a part of everything. It was a safe, good place.”

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About Patrick Cullinan

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