WOODLAND — There will be plenty of reaching for new heights at Woodland High School starting tonight, when the drama program opens a three-night run of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
There’s the program itself, which is attempting its first musical with live accompaniment in 20 years after bringing in some outside help. Then, there’s Evelyn Roehn, who is working as a puppeteer for the first time. The 5-foot-1 sophomore is working with two costumes designed for someone 6-foot-8 and taller the school rented for the show.
“You had to be super tall and super buff,” she said. “I did not meet those requirements.”
Still, she stuck with it and worked on it during rehearsal and afterwards.
“It’s really heavy,” she said. “At first, I couldn’t do more than about five minutes inside of the smaller (costume). Eventually, over time, I started to build up all this muscle in my arms. There were a lot of things we had to alter inside the plant because I’m so short. It was killing my lower back.”
Some of the alterations included pinning the branch leggings on one of the costumes so the loose ends wouldn’t get tangled up and adding a strap to the jaw so she could work the plant’s mouth. In the larger costume, Roehn uses a step stool to get herself up high enough to the creature’s mouth, and puts her foot on the jaw to work it.
In “Little Shop,” a nerdy florist (played by Mason Hubbard in Woodland) at a struggling floral shop grows an odd-looking plant that draws customers the more it grows. The florist, Seymour, continues to grow the plant to impress his co-worker, Audrey (Emma Vande Krol), and the plant, named Audrey II, develops a taste for blood. Eventually, Audrey II grows to the point where it craves more and more blood.
Branden McFarland, the drama director at Woodland, didn’t have any prior experience with puppets either. He said Roehn stayed late to work on it and they watched “Sesame Street” to see how to puppeteer large costumes.
“It was the best homework assignment of my life. I got to sit around and watch ‘Sesame Street’ for a few hours a night,” Roehn said. “I modeled myself a lot from Big Bird. He has a jaw that moves a lot more than any other characters and when he spoke, he moved around a lot more.”
Not only was this McFarland’s first experience with puppet work, but it’s his first time directing a musical. He was hired by the district to work on productions with students after school this year. “Little Shop” is his second production at Woodland after directing “Our Town” in the fall. McFarland, who graduated Prairie High School in Battle Ground Public Schools in 2010, said the method and preparation is generally the same for a musical as it is for a drama.
“Musicals are typically all about the spectacle,” he said.
McFarland said students started asking earlier in the year about doing a musical, and he picked “Little Shop” for a few reasons.
“The core themes and message of the play resonate with what’s going on in the world today,” he said. “It’s about being kind and taking care of each other.”
Students asking to do a musical is something Heather Gordon, director of the school’s drama program, is familiar with.
“The kids have been asking to do a musical for years,” said Gordon. “I was the only person doing drama here before this year, and I didn’t have the skills to do it. I didn’t want to put on a sloppy musical.”
The school is able to put on the musical this year thanks to help from newcomers like McFarland and Bryana Steck, director of bands for the district. She is leading the ensemble of five musicians who will play live during the show. Steck graduated from Woodland High School in 2002, and the last time the district put on a musical, “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1997, her father was the band director at the time. She remembers him coming home frustrated trying to put the show together, which featured community members at the time.
Steck’s experience has been more positive. She said the ensemble started rehearsing with performers right after spring break, and it’s taken a lot of time to get everything right.
“It’s all about coordination,” she said. “There are a lot of working parts. It’s like an enormous clock. You have to make sure everything lines up.”
Gordon said she has been thrilled to watch McFarland and Steck working to organize the show. She took over the department six years ago as an English teacher, and said she has wanted to see the school’s drama department expand.
“Theater should be in every school,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the kid who is not the strongest athlete or student to find something. They find a love for themselves, for each other, for the creative process. I’ve seen students come into the program as the shiest kids who are full of anxiety and they’re able to get on a stage and perform. It changes them.”