Dramatic Arts Mammoth Players prep for international festival

The cast and crew of December’s production of “Gulls” at the Western Center Academy in Hemet. The majority of these students will be taking the show to Europe this summer. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Thespians from the Western Center Academy’s award-winning theater arts program are preparing for the upcoming spring production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at the end of March in Hemet and a performance at Scotland’s Fringe Festival in August.

The American High School Theatre Festival reaches out to recognized programs throughout North America to perform at the acclaimed Fringe Festival, which is the largest performing arts festival in the world. Students from Hemet’s WCA will spend 11 days overseas, enjoying the culture, history and arts of London and Edinburgh.

This is theater teacher Joshua Brady’s fourth year at WCA, where he previously taught English classes to many of his current theater students. They are all members of the International Thespian Society, a high school honor society for theater. “Our kids are proud thespians and strive to earn Honors, National Honors and International Honors,” Brady said. ITS hosts its own annual festival, however, Brady prefers to take his performers to the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California’s Shakespeare festival, which happens about the same time.

“We have competed in festivals sponsored by DTASC and California Educational Theatre Association,” he said. “We have won quite a few awards. In 2021, we won first place for best original work by CETA in a competition that spanned California. Since 2020, we have taken three first place finishes at DTASC events, as well as 16 trophies (2nd-5th) and a number of honorable mentions (6th-10th).”

Although the Dramatic Arts Mammoth Players have about 70 students on their roster across three high school level classes, only 10 performers and four creative workers will be traveling abroad. The production they will be sharing on the international stage is “Gulls,” a modern take on Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

“We know that the Fringe is famous for debuting work, so we decided to do an original adaptation of a classic. Even before I arrived, WCA had a tradition of doing classics,” Brady said. “I wanted to rework a classic from the viewpoint of our cast. The advanced theatre class chose to rewrite ‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov after looking at a number of plays. As a company, we agreed that we could do the best job resetting it in a high school. We spent months improvising scenes based on the original. Those improvs became the basis of our show.”

“Gulls” addresses the issue of suicide and students were given suicide prevention and awareness training through the Riverside County Office of Education and Riverside University Health System Behavioral Health prior to starting to work on the play. All agree that it helped them approach the theme with a mature attitude and allowed them to develop their characters more fully as a result.

Brady said input from all the students was included in the script as they shared ideas online and then improvised as a cast, freely switching parts. Brady would note the changes to the script and take the work back to the group to be revised based on their suggestions. The truly collaborative project was first performed in December and hopes are to remount it in Hemet this summer before taking it to the Fringe, www.edfringe.com. They have considered changing some of the wording as they prepare it for an international audience.

Brady said a panel of three staff helped to cast the play, rating the students’ improvisation-based auditions. He said, “Because we wrote the script as a cast, we took the top 10 scores without considering parts for a play that had not been written. Once the play was written, I chose the parts working with the student stage managers.”

Members of the ensemble show are seniors Fallon Arave, Dara Bailey, Ashley Leon and Roxie Pilapil; juniors Ayman Al Jarjis, Cayman Crayton and Hannah Jindra; and sophomores Samantha “Sammi” Hoggan, Kyra Hortman and Jordan Israelson. The following stage managers and technical workers were selected based on past work: senior Bella Eskin, stage manager; juniors Logan Fogle, lights, and Parker Wharton, sound; and sophomore Abigail Brady, assistant stage manager/props.

Most of the thespians live in Hemet, have attended Western Center Academy since sixth grade and have been in theater since their freshman year so they are looking forward to sharing this experience with their longtime classmates.

Fallon, 18, has the role of Chad in Gulls and describes him as a soccer player who is “very loud and pretty stupid” but is so carefree. Fallon has traveled throughout the United States as a competitor in equestrian events but this is her first time leaving the country. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of cool Scottish things and sharing the experience with my besties,” she said.

Dara, 17, said her Gulls’ character of Alex is that of the very complicated older sister to Constantine, “She’s put together on the surface but deep down, she struggles.” Dara is looking forward to seeing all the other productions that groups will be presenting at the festival and “seeing everyone’s take on a classic, like what we did.”

Ayman, 17, said his role of Tray shows how much one person can make a difference in someone’s life. “As a small cast play, we modernized every single character,” he said. Ayman said he would consider continuing acting in television or movies, but his other passions are computer science and medicine.

Cayman, 16, said the show definitely raises awareness about mental health and although she plays a quiet character in Mavis, she feels she cares most deeply for what Constantine is going through. “I’m looking forward to being able to bond with my friends in a place that’s just for us,” Cayman said of the upcoming trip.

Hannah, 16, plays Mrs. Sorin in Gulls. “She’s a teacher trying to do her best but she doesn’t have the skill set to deal with a serious issue like this,” she said. Hannah said the audiences at all her past plays have been family- and friends-based so she is interested in receiving audience feedback at Fringe, which is included as part of the festival. She loves theater and English and plans to teach both in the future.

Sammi, 15, of Idyllwild, said that although her role is not a huge character, it is such a small production that everybody plays a super important role in the powerful show. “I expect to experience some culture shock (in Europe) to some extent because we are just your average California high school kids,” she said.

Kyra, 15, of Murrieta, plays the “nerdy” Simon who is obsessed with Star Wars and online debates but feels the humor of her character offers the perfect balance for this show. She said it has been one of her favorite roles to play. “I love the entire cast and crew and just look forward to hanging out with all of them,” Kyra said.

Jordan, 15, plays the troubled Constantine and said the role is more difficult than any she has played before. “We try to show how depression doesn’t look the same for everyone and how to recognize the signs,” she said. Jordan is excited to see Scottish castles and hopes to see men wearing kilts.

Bella, 17, of San Jacinto, has done a little bit of acting but fell in love with the technical side of theater. As stage manager, she is anxious to be in a whole new environment and see how tech works in a different place. “This will be one last big experience with all my friends before going out of state to go to college,” she said.

Parker, 16, will be working the sound when the cast takes the stage in Scotland. He joined theater tech last year and has enjoyed learning how to handle lights, sound and other behind-the-scenes tasks. “I know it sounds crazy but I’m looking forward to trying haggis; I like trying new foods,” he said. Parker has some family roots in Scotland and wants to do some sightseeing while he is there.

Abigail, 16, of Menifee, said her role as assistant stage manager for Gulls gives her the opportunity to connect with actors in a new way. “I prefer acting, but being able to grow in a different way is something I feel I need as a person,” she said. Abigail wants to explore the accents she knows she will encounter at the festival from all the different students, as well as all the cool musical instruments that are native to the area.

For the time being, these students have been busy rehearsing for their upcoming production of Brady’s favorite Shakespearean comedy, “Twelfth Night,” as performed by hair bands. “My favorite show is always the current one,” he said. “Our goal with this play was to make Shakespeare fun and accessible. I think we are going to do that as we blend the Bard with a touch of Bon Jovi.”

Brady himself got an early start on stage, doing theater in elementary school and his first community show while in fifth grade. “I would go between school and community shows before deciding to stick with my school,” he said. “I majored in theatre in college, where I bounced around between playwriting, acting and directing. Looking for a place to start our family, my wife and I moved to Hemet in 2006.”

He prefers shows that cross genres but if he had to choose just one, it would be comedy. “I like plays that tackle serious issues, but I hate to spend an hour without laughing a bit,” Brady said. “The greatest playwright, Shakespeare, managed to infuse Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear with quite a few laughs. The play we are taking to Scotland actually goes between comedy and drama quite a bit. Our December audiences laughed more than they cried, but we had quite a bit of tears.”

“Twelfth Night” will be presented March 23, 24 and 25 at 7 p.m. at the Western Center Academy piazza, 2345 Searl Parkway, Hemet. Student tickets are $5 online or $10 at the door and adult admission is $12 online or $15 at the door.

For more information on the Dramatic Arts Mammoth Players, to purchase tickets or merchandise and/or to donate to their traveling expenses, please visit www.onthestage.tickets/show/western-center-academy/62e85150824ce10e1504300f.