The students of the internationally recognized West Orange High School Theatre Department are making an impact that goes way beyond the walls of the classroom.
The students have been resilient in persevering despite the pandemic.
In the last few months, the department's Thespian Troupe 1983 participated in the Florida State Thespian Festival for its one-act play “Ruby's Story,” which the 33 students involved in the play put together in only two weeks.
“Ruby's Story” received the Critic’s Choice One-Act award; Critic’s Choice Tech award; the Outstanding Student Design award, which went to Ryan Chillinsky; and the Outstanding Lead Actress award, which went to Eislinn Gracen.
Additionally, the show received superior ratings in both performance and technology.
The All-Star Cast award went to Annabelle Peebles, and the All-Star Crew award went to stage manager Alex Battenfield.
Two West Orange students won Best in Show for their individual events, including Gina DiGiovani for Solo Musical and Zachary Miles for Lighting Design.
The department's “Pippin” fall musical, which premiered in October, also was invited to perform as a Mainstage at the state festival. The production took about seven weeks to put together and has about 65 students.
“I’m really proud of my students,” Whitman said. “They really work hard, and they don’t need to be led one on one. They understand the importance of the work they do and will constantly ask me if they can do something to help or make things better to improve.”
Although the department’s recent accomplishments are huge, it now has bills that will be, too.
WOHS Director of Theatre Tara Whitman said the department is currently focusing on fundraising. Taking both shows to the state festival in March will require about $30,000 to $40,000.
FUNDRAISING FOR A CAUSE
Now, the theater department is asking the West Orange community for its help.
The director said the theater is drastically out of date and under-resourced. She said the department owns no working microphones, uses a 30-year-old sound console, has broken lighting fixtures and is running a lighting console that stopped updating at Windows Vista. The six-foot holes in the theater’s curtains also hint at a need for replacement.
Because of the deficits, the department works harder to rent equipment for every show. Whitman said the bills cost the theatre at least $10,000 each time it rents equipment.
“You may wonder why we take on such ambitious things and so many of them if we don't have the means,” she said. “It's simple: I do it for the students. They are being offered a hands-on theater education and find their purpose. I have a group of teenagers who have a strong work ethic and are here with me, staying out of trouble. These students are deserving of so much and should not be offered less opportunity simply because our facilities are in terrible shape.”
The director emphasized WOHS Principal Matt Turner and administrators continue to support the department in any way they can, but that the scope is “beyond them at this point.”
The students are in need of several big asks from the community, including donations of light and sound equipment, a semi-truck to transport the productions to states in Tampa — although the department already has a licensed driver — and box trucks for the smaller show.
Whitman shared there are multiple ways the community can help to support the school’s theater program.
Locals can sponsor the students, many who will have a hard time paying for the trip to Tampa; help with the bigger asks; or even pass along the need for help to other friends or family members.
Another way to help is for residents to see the department's upcoming shows.
WOHS Theatre will present Disney’s “Frozen Jr.” Feb. 10 to 13. Whitman said the show will be family friendly and will even have an additional 10 a.m. performance on Saturday, Feb. 12, for young audience members, which will include a sing-along, dancing and nap time.
“Any families with small children that may want to get them out of the house to see a beloved story can bring them to this show,” she said. “Although the show is meant for children, as we know, everyone loves ‘Frozen’ and the story it tells. It’s going to be a beautiful performance.”
“Pippin” will then run again from March 4 to 6, and “Ruby’s Story” will run again March 9.
The theater’s next show, “Les Miserables,” will come after states and run May 4 to 8.
“It feels really nice to be supported by this community,” Whitman said. “I just have this huge sense of pride for Winter Garden because, to me, it still has that small-town feel that it did before. So being Winter Garden’s oldest high school currently, it's nice to have that community feel.”
The director said even if residents have a donation that wasn’t included on the list, they still can reach out because it might be something the department needs in the future.
For example, for the upcoming “Les Miserables,” the show will include not only the theater department, but also the school’s band and chorus. Due to the large number of students participating, the department will be in need of chairs and plan to host an upcoming chair drive.
Although the Florida State Thespian Festival is not a competition, Whitman said the honor is the equivalent of earning a State Championship title in athletics. As a Mainstage selection, the department's “Pippin” is one of only six shows to present its full-length production at the festival.
The festival will take place during the students’ spring break from March 16 to 19.
Whitman said states will allow the students to do so much more than just perform.
Students will be able to take workshops, attend shows, work on their resumes, talk to colleges, audition to colleges, meet guest performers and more.
“It makes me so happy every time we get to showcase (students’) work at the festival,” the director said. “It just shows their hard work pays off and the extra steps we take with extra detail and time is rewarded.”
HELP THE WOHS THEATRE DEPARTMENT
TICKETS: Click here.
FUNDRAISING PAGE: Click here.
TO HELP OR DONATE: Email Director Tara Whitman at [email protected].