Wyoming Theater Company Director Jeremy Schnotala handed a list of characters to his student actors under the header “weird characters that show up to funerals.”
It was three months before the spring play. There was no script and no plot, just the shadow of personalities students would soon embody as their own creations.
“I said, ‘You guys cast each other,’” said Schnotala, a longtime Wyoming High School theater director and English teacher who has directed big, adapted-from-Broadway productions such as “Cats,” “The Addams Family” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
After 25 years of directing, the published writer wanted a new challenge: create a show from scratch with his students. “This was the first time I’ve had my students write,” he said.
Students took the directive and ran with it, birthing a motley crew of quirky, flamboyant, funny and kooky characters — from a disorganized funeral director to a death-obsessed will executor. They also wrote and ultimately performed many of their own lines in the production, titled “What?”
Schnotala is working on getting the play published, which will include students’ names on the cast page as “originally played by.”
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‘It was go, go, go’
The Monday after the final show in late April, the young thespians chatted excitedly about the process of bringing the play from just an idea to reality. “I loved writing,” said Carlos Caracheo-Trujillo, who played a widowed husband. “I loved this idea of actually being able to contribute to something that went on the stage. To me, that was the coolest thing ever.”
At first, though, Schnotala and students weren’t even sure what kind of play they were making.
They spent weeks workshopping, wrote two-minute plays, and studied different forms of comedy. They finally decided to create a full-length interactive, ensemble comedy from scratch — with many surprising twists. Because the play has a major what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get element, students couldn’t speak a word about the plot up until the final curtain closed.
Anthea Pearson, who played a snarky old woman named Ethel, said creating her character and the show was a fast-paced process of trial and error. “It was workshopping, more workshopping, figuring out the basic idea, script-write time, develop characters, go, go, go,” she recalled.
“It happened in three months, which was the crazy part,” said Jack Ballard, who played a furniture store employee. “There were so many what-ifs.”
As they came up with lines and ideas, Schnotala wrote them down — knowing even “the bad stuff was material,” he said. He emphasizes that every writer starts with a subpar first draft and works from there.
As he readies the play for publication, he’s still tweaking. “My computer was open all the way through the final night… I still will go through it in my mind and edit it.”
Schnotala said he’s never involved students in creating a performance to this extent. “We went from absolutely nothing to this full production that had a lot of things no other production we’ve done has had before.”
The Creative Process
Students practiced improv as they embraced and developed their characters, writing monologues that are delivered in the play. They also had to get the timing right: an interactive bingo game and a eulogy reading given by someone chosen from the audience had to flow seamlessly. Always, they stayed in character.
“We had to continuously act, even during intermission,” said Victoria Castillo, who played a mysterious grandchild.
“Everybody played off each other’s chemistry, and we were constantly revising the script,” said Juan-Pablo Marcos, who played the funeral director. “Someone would say a line that would be added, and the next day we had to memorize the line.”
For Anthea, creating a character gave her a sense of freedom and creativity, she said. There were no pre-scripted boundaries and that was the joy in it.
She knew from the start, “I can develop this character however I want, and I can become this character.”
Davier Bryant Jr. agreed. By showtime, he was in character.
“I could just be in the moment.”