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From the ITF Main Stage: Alice by Heart

Alice by Heart - Fossil Ridge High School

The International Thespian Festival (ITF) main stage is a celebration of outstanding student work from high schools across Thespian Nation. Joining the fun this summer is Thespian Troupe 7339 from Fossil Ridge High School, with their performance of Alice by Heart.

Set in the rubble of the London blitz of World War II, Alice by Heart follows Alice Spencer’s budding teen life as it’s turned upside down, and she and her dear friend Alfred are forced to take shelter in an underground tube station. When the ailing Alfred is quarantined, Alice encourages him to escape with her into their cherished book and journey down the rabbit hole to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Alice by Heart explores the poignancy of first love, coming to terms with loss, and finding the courage to move forward, celebrating the transformational power of the imagination, even in the harshest of times.

EdTA chatted with troupe director Mikayla Assmus and choreographer Christopher Lengerich to get a peek behind the curtain.

1. Why this show? What was the spark or idea behind choosing it?

Mikayla Assmus: I first discovered Alice By Heart in fall 2019. I knew it would be a dream show to do one day, but I thought my theatre days were done as I was focusing on becoming an English teacher. Flash forward to spring of 2023: I’m now working as an English, theatre and leadership teacher getting to live the dream that I thought I had lost.

When I discovered that MTI was releasing Alice By Heart, I knew we had to do everything in our power to get to perform this show. We knew we couldn’t do it as our spring musical due to the small cast size, so we decided to do Fossil Ridge’s first ever winter musical. We also decided only do it if we were to submit it for ITF. We knew this would be a show that challenged everyone involved. Because we were amongst the first to get to perform this story, we got to interpret it and show it to our audiences with our own unique spin.

We had to dig deep into the story and determine the ways we wanted these characters and moments to exist. It would be a challenge for tech to determine how to build a set that would have to be portable if we were to be selected for ITF. It would challenge our students because we had only seven weeks to be able to put the show up. This made for very late rehearsals and a performance experience similar to what a professional performer experiences. We also loved the idea of getting to share this show, a show that not many know about, with the best audiences in the nation at ITF.

Christopher Lengerich: Honestly, it scared me! Alice in Wonderland has always been a story that’s been difficult for me to fully immerse myself in and feel like I understand it, which was exactly why I knew I had to go “down the hole” and redirect that fear into exploration. I was incredibly intrigued by the themes of grief and acceptance, and that archetypes of Alice are how the story unfolds. Grief and loss are so universal, war is so current and ever-present on the edges of our society – it felt like a gift to explore that further, and actually helped me understand the original Alice so much better. The piece also allowed the terrifying and unbounded sense of freedom to do anything, especially choreographically. Once I dug in, I was so excited to create and discover with the students just exactly how we might make Wonderland come to life. It’s a giant game of what if, and there are endless ideas – the discovery of which ones tell the story best is a delightful challenge.

Alice by Heart - Fossil Ridge High School

2. How did you involve your students in the creative process and decision-making for the show?

Assmus: At the beginning of this process, our directorial team came together and decided on a common vision for our production. We brought it forward to our students, and they were able to use that vision to help craft everything into something they felt they had ownership of, and what they created was one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever worked on.

Alice by Heart allows for some flexibility within casting, so throughout our rehearsal process students had a huge part in getting to craft their characters from scratch. For example, Nigel/Dormouse and Angus/Caterpillar in the MCC version of Alice by Heart were played by men, but for our production were played by women.

Every prop, furniture, costume piece, etc. is something that would have been found [in the tube station] or amongst the rubble and brought down to the tube. Some of my favorite student ideas are having tea bags and paper plates included in an outfit for Dormouse; cards, masks, and syringes included in an outfit for Queen of Hearts; and a mop and parachute to become an outfit for our Duchess. As you watch, keep a close eye to see if you can catch every hidden detail.

Lengerich: Sometimes I have a hard time believing this is true myself, but I did very little pre-pro for the show. It certainly was not choreographed before we started rehearsals in a traditional sense of “here are your steps, now learn them.” The process was far more explorative and collaborative. We put the musical numbers together in about 12 four-hour rehearsals after school. Each morning I’d spend some time listening to the song and studying the score, breaking down lyrics, the story beats, and mostly what movement language or style I felt would best tell the story for that song. Once in the room, I’d offer some staging ideas and movements, see the acting choices or vocal interpretations each student would give, and sort of “open the Bifrost” to allow the room to inspire what the next movement or picture or beat should be. It allowed anyone’s thoughts in the room to inspire or create, and the students to actively witness and partake in the development of choreography/staging.

One of the most fun rehearsals I’ve ever had was with the four in the tea party and just offering a bunch of “what ifs.” What if we played a game of musical chairs? What if you did a front flip off the table and then slid under it and then climbed up through his arms? Those four students are exceptional, especially the diminutive Fawn who was like, “Sure, I’ll belt that note and hang off a table at the same time,” that’s not a strange request for a teenager at all. These students understood ensemble and collaboration from the get go and were all in every step of the way. Did I mention we were choreographing during finals week?

Alice by Heart - Fossil Ridge High School

3. Has your vision for the show evolved at all as you’ve gone through the process of preparing it for the ITF stage?

Assmus: From the blocking, choreography and storytelling aspect of Alice By Heart, we aren’t changing anything to prepare it for ITF. We want to be able to bring the same story as we were able to give our initial Fort Collins audiences. My vision for this show came to life in the most beautiful way back in December, and I’m counting down the days to get to share it again both in Fort Collins in May and with theatre kids from all over the world at the end of June. As for the technical elements, this is a lot more tricky. As a theatre department, we’ve never done anything like this before and it’s quite terrifying to be honest.

Thinking about bringing our massive set along with all of our lighting equipment, props, costumes, etc. and setting it all up in less than eight hours is going to be our biggest challenge of all. We’re in the process of working together to see the best way to remount this show with minimal changes and probably will be working through for the next couple of months.

4. Got a fun rehearsal moment, practice, or activity that’s helping you prep?

Assmus: It’s not a rehearsal moment, but one of my favorite moments/traditions I got to witness every night was during our mic check. After everyone got individually mic checked we would have the full cast sing “Down the Hole” together on stage. This was a time where the students got to dance and sing and get connected as a group before putting on the show.

Lengerich: Shouting “Silence in the court!” in an RP (British) dialect whenever you need to get a room full of errant teenagers’ attention. On brand for both the show and high school.

Alice by Heart - Fossil Ridge High School

5. How do you balance the educational aspects with the artistic demands of directing a high school production?

Assmus: I find that it goes hand in hand. Without taking the time to break the story and the characters into pieces, we can’t properly tell the story and convey the message we want. Theatre is all about collaborating and pushing each other to create the best piece of art possible. It’s about being vulnerable and tapping into everything we bring from our own lives to make personal connections and make these experiences as real as possible. In the end my goal is to create a safe space where students can come and participate in something that they love. A space where they can be brave and take risks, and a place where a strong, supportive community can be created.

Lengerich: I grew up in a theatre environment that expected you to leave everything at the door, a mindset I’m delighted to see continually evolving in this community and by young people. Balance and humanity are first and foremost. Compassion, humanity, our intrinsic values — to me, they are the mainstays of why we create and storytell, and with students, our caring for their growth must take precedence always. So I don’t believe in leaving everything at the door — we’re doing a show about death and grief! We have to take those things, our daily struggles, into rehearsal with us so we learn how they embolden and strengthen us. These are incredible and passionate students, but their passion and desire should always be balanced with their adolescent and educational needs.

Alice by Heart - Fossil Ridge High School

6. What’s one piece of advice you would share with troupes hoping to make main stage next year?

Assmus: I’m only a third-year teacher and have only attended ITF twice. The only advice I have for troupes is to dream big and if you’re on the fence of deciding whether to put your show up for adjudication or not, just do it! You have nothing to lose, and the best part of the adjudication is the feedback and learning that comes along with it. I remember two years ago at ITF watching Kinky Boots performed by Lincoln Southwest High School and being completely blown away. That’s where my career dream came to life. After that performance I knew I had to give my students the same experience one day, I just didn’t realize it would be a short two years later. So as cliche as it sounds, anything is possible if you believe and take the leap for it!

Lengerich: I’m the creative addition to this process, so I don’t have the ambitious or school-driven answer. But I’m an artist, really a storyteller first and foremost. It doesn’t matter which property you choose or how best to showcase your students if you don’t first and foremost ask yourselves, “what story are we telling, why are we telling it, and how are we telling it?” If you live in service of the story, rather than working to show off or wow, all of those moments will be justified. And of course, that must go hand in hand with collaboration. Our team is the creme de la creme. Work with people who challenge you, who are willing, who have good ideas, but also who edit. Unify under that one goal and you will always succeed.

7. What do you hope the audience takes away from your show, and why’s this important to you?

Assmus: I hope they can sink into the story and embrace the magic of wonderland and the magic of theatre. I want them to be able to escape their realities and join the characters and build a golden afternoon to live in, together, for a little while. That’s the magic of theatre, right? Being able to share such an intimate space and be together enjoying art in its rawest form. The theatre magic is something extra special at ITF. Being in a room of theatre kids supporting theatre kids is the most wonderful thing of all.

Lengerich: Well, I’m already floored by the reception we’ve received from family and friends, by ITF, and now with the opportunity to share the story again. It’s not necessarily the easiest buy-in for an audience. Accents, London, Alice, archetypes, contemporary score… how was my 98-year-old WWII vet grandfather going to understand what was going on? I just kept trusting that we had told the story, that we release it and allow the audience to own it.

Theatre is collaboration, it’s live, it’s ephemeral and temporal and shared and requires you to bravely and vulnerably take a page from Alice by Heart and let go. And so far, people have responded exactly as I hoped they would – they are witnessing something unique and special. It’s a rich chocolate cake that requires a lot of exploration and depth and revisiting (think Hadestown), but also a play built around a work of nonsense. So when I see they get it, they recognize the story, they have an emotional reaction, they recognize an archetype or a moment of creativity, even if they still have questions, then we did our job.

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