With mere days to go before the opening of "Urinetown: The Musical," the entire cast and crew of the Hammond High School production was spending most of Feb. 25 in the school auditorium.
As the pit orchestra played and students in full costume sang and danced, director Lauren Tobiason sat at a table far in the back of the auditorium, wearing a headset and watching intently.
"That's not the right light," she said into her headphone at one point. A moment later: "That's the correct one."
Later, she left her perch and joined the actors on the stage to demonstrate the fine points of how to throw a rag doll so it looks like a body. After a few tries, she left the stage and the students picked up where they had left off, but this time throwing the doll in a more convincing manner.
March is the month for spring musicals at Howard County high schools, and it's now crunch time for student actors, pit orchestra musicians, stage crew members, costume designers, prop directors, stage managers, directors and assistant directors.
The season begins Thursday, March 1, when the curtain goes up at Hammond and Howard high schools. The busiest weekend will be March 23-24, when five schools will showcase their productions. The only school that won't have a March musical is Reservoir. The Fulton school will stage "Anything Goes" in mid-April.
While seniors typically get the few speaking roles in the productions, that's not always the case. At Howard High School, Kevin Kwon, 14, a freshman, is playing the lead role of Aaron Fox in the school's production of "Curtains, A Musical Comedy Whodunit."
Kwon, who said his only previous acting experience was in a church production while in elementary school, said he was surprised and pleased to land the role, and thinks he may have found his calling.
"I love it," he said of his budding stage career. "But you never know. Things change."
High School directors are typically theater arts teachers who try to choose plays that will highlight the strengths of the cast, which can be 70 students or more. They use revenues from ticket sales to fund the musicals on tight budgets, while relying on the hard work of students, former students, parents and local music and theater professionals who either volunteer or offer their services at discounted prices.
Tobiason, for example, said her budget for "Urinetown: The Musical" is about $10,000, a price that includes about $3,000 just for the rights to use the show. The sets and props were designed by Linda Wieman, the mother of students who have graduated, and parents and students contributed the manpower for their construction. "We try to re-use as much as possible because it is expensive," she said.
Tobiason is also relying on two former students, Julie Rose, 18, a freshman at the University of Maryland; and Alex Krebs, 21, a senior at theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County, to provide the choreography.
Rose said her goals are to link the moves to the music and story; and to create routines that can be performed by actors of varying abilities.
Most schools put on two shows a year: a fall play with a limited cast and no singing or dancing; and a spring production that pulls out all the stops.
"In the spring, for the musical, it's always a large group," said Pam Land, who has been director of theater arts at River Hill High School since it opened in 1996.
She enjoys seeing students of all grades, abilities and experience levels work together.
"It's always fun to see the seniors that have the experience under the belt really take on the leadership roles," she said.
She makes a point of telling the students that theater is a truly collaborative effort, telling them repeatedly, "you can't do a musical by yourself," she said.
Tryouts and casting usually take place before the winter break, with work beginning in earnest when students return to school in January. Rehearsals might be three or four times a week after school, but most students don't have to attend each one. However, as the opening performance draws closer, the schedule intensifies.
Students in the Howard High production had less than a week before their opening as they rehearsed on Friday, Feb. 24 under the direction of Marissa Troeschel. Standing on stage were senior Rachel Dooley and junior Laura Feinleib, members of the dance ensemble.
"We've had practice every day but it's actually fun. It's actually a pretty good workout," Feinleib said.
For stage managers like Autumn Dahlgren, 16, the stage manager for the Howard production, the hours are long from the beginning, since stage managers have to be at every rehearsal, and often stay later than the actors to work out technical details with the stage crew. "It can be kind of overwhelming," she said, "just because it's your peers."
At Hammond, senior Monica Crisp, 18, the stage manager, sat at a table behind the last row of seats in the auditorium, alongside Tobiason and Nicolette Ellis, 17, a senior who is the assistant director.
Back when she was starting high school, Ellis said, she thought she wanted to be a novelist. Now, she plans to attend the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City.
"I'm definitely going to go into the theater world," she said.
"I don't know if it's a career path, but I'm definitely looking forward to participating in theater in college," Crisp said. "I was in one or two plays and I liked it, but I do prefer being behind the scenes. ... It's a lot of fun. When opening day comes, I'm going to be so happy."