These North Texas high schoolers rehearsed in a locker room. Now they’re headed to a national stage.

Renovation work left the J. J. Pearce High School theater program without a theater. But after rehearsing all over the place, they’re headed to a national theater festival.

By Jerome Weeks, KERA NewsJune 13, 2023 11:15 am, , ,

From KERA News:

Most North Texas high school seniors have graduated by now — with all the tears and happiness that life transition entails. Meanwhile, seniors in music theater programs have had one more ritual to perform: their last school show.

But at J. J. Pearce High School in Richardson their very last show is still to come — later this month, in Indiana.

Pearce theater students were recently working on their world premiere of a student version of the movie musical, Mean Girls. Heather Biddle, the school’s theater director, called their rehearsal to order.

“All right,” she yelled over the chatter, getting the attention of actors and crew in the cavernous auditorium. “Our game plan today is we’re gonna work through act two.”

Heather Biddle directing a rehearsal of “Mean Girls” at Richardson High School.
Jerome Weeks / KERA News

Putting together any high school show can seem like barely organized madness. In addition to directing such shows, Biddle teaches the theater classes and runs the theater summer camps, which can attract as many as 60 kids.

When asked how does she ever calm down, Biddle considered for a moment: “I don’t.”

But this year, the madness reached a new level for these students. They actually were rehearsing at Richardson High School. The Pearce campus is undergoing a multi-million dollar overhaul. So throughout the past year, these students haven’t had a theater. They didn’t have a rehearsal space.

Heather Biddle didn’t even have an office.

“We spent the entire year in a locker room,” she said. “It actually had ‘boys locker room’ still on the outside.”

“We turned it into a black box theater,” said Rhys Flynn, who described himself as a Pearce junior-turning-senior. “I think it might’ve been a football locker room. So it has kind of a nice stench to it that we’ve had to defuse with oils everyday.”

“We called it the lockerbox,” said Bella Denissen. “And we also rehearsed in this warehouse off-campus and in different, like, gyms and cafeterias.”

Denissen is a senior and a lead performer in the production of Mean Girls — she was nominated as an outstanding performer by the Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theater Awards. Denissen said the experience of her final high school year resembled – well, it was kind of like professional theater. The students were getting re-writes and learning them on the spot, having to adapt to different spaces.

Sarah Willingham (left) and Amelia Pinney rehearse “Mean Girls” at Richardson High School. Pinney was nominated for outstanding choreography by the Broadway Dallas High School Musical Awards.
Jerome Weeks / KERA News

And ultimately, they were opening a premiere.

“There’re definitely times where it was super-stressful,” she said. “But it’s just been really exciting.”

Jacob Merschel, a senior and the show’s other lead performer, agreed.

“It felt like we were just doing so much theater, that’s all my brain was, like, focused on. It was awesome though, y’know? Like, the locker room and things? It didn’t slow us down.”

J. J. Pearce’s theater program does stand out. For one thing, Biddle said, “we don’t have just the theater kid. Our kids are football players, basketball players. They’re athletes.”

In fact, Biddle cited her predecessor, Lynn Zednick Shaw — nicknamed Zed — for picking out talent wherever she found it.

“There’s a story,” Biddle said, “when Zed walked on the baseball field and she said, ‘You. I heard you sing. Come here.'”

That student, Will Hughes, is now an opera baritone. He’s performed with the Santa Fe Opera.

Bella Denissen, one of the leads in “Mean Girls,” was nominated as an outstanding performer in the Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theater Awards.
Jerome Weeks / KERA News

Most athlete performers don’t end up singing La bohème. But they could perform in a world premiere. Pearce has become a proving ground for school adaptations of Broadway shows. These student versions are generally adapted with the cooperation of the Broadway show’s original creators, lyricists, composers. Then these “pilot productions” are tried out at select schools in different regions around the country.

So Pearce has premiered the high school adaptations of Mean Girls and Blood Brothers. Biddle herself worked to get the world premiere of the off-Broadway musical, Heathers. Much like Mean Girls, that show-adapted-from-a-film has a very dedicated, female fan base, evident from the national attention both have received.

But such shows also make programming sense: Female students generally outnumber the males in high school theater classes. So with plenty of female roles, these shows are easier to cast.

As a counter-example, Biddle cites Shakespeare in Love — which was more an adapted film with music than a full-fledged musical. But it featured more male roles. And Pearce was one of a handful of schools across the country that premiered it. (You can watch a video about the show.)

Again, Biddle credits Zed with having the skills and the foresight to be one of the first theater teachers to take on big, challenging shows like Miss Saigon — challenging not just in mature material but also in cost and production design.

“Everyone else felt we do theater to do some nice, like, educational shows,” she said, “and she always felt there was more.”

Jacob Merschel (left) rehearsing at the Music Hall at Fair Park. He, like Denissen, was nominated as an outstanding performer by the Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theater Awards. The awards show is held at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
Jerome Weeks / KERA News

“Theater’s big,” said Jacob Merschel, who like Denissen, was nominated for outstanding lead performer by the Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theater Awards.

“It’s bigger than, like, being on the stage,” he said. “It’s a community. And it’s a place to be yourself and grow. And here nurtures that. So, I don’t know, I feel like I accomplished something by being here.”

High school shows typically wrap up their brief runs right around graduation in May. But the Pearce students have yet another last performance to give later this month. Mean Girls is one of only seven stage productions in the country invited to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Indiana.

And for the cast of a high school show — a show that started in a locker room — it probably doesn’t get much bigger than that.

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