As the drama cast prepares to perform their first play of the school year, director Susan Ainley gives insight into each aspect of the production. This year, she is especially nostalgic with the seniors, many of whom she has known since kindergarden.

In the coming week, the drama class will present the play The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Nov. 15-17. This will be the sixth play I have directed for Fresno Christian High School. Putting together a production takes hours of planning, even before the first rehearsal. From my perspective, directing a play has some interesting challenges and benefits.

Choosing a play:

I read the synopsis of many plays during the summer. Sometimes the title grabs me. When I taught junior high drama, Homework Eats Dog spoke to me right away. Senior Natalie Ruiz, back then a seventh grader, played the part of a science student who could not finish her project on time because . . . it ate her dog!

Other times I had to read the play from start to finish to be sure. I had watched Meet Me in St. Louis as a movie, but after reading the entire play, I knew it was right for our school.

Casting the play:

Honestly, while I read the script, the students? faces appear to me in the form of specific characters. I know it sounds strange, but when I read The Bible in 30 Minutes, I knew Chris Grossman, ’15, would play the role of God. I could hear his voice saying, ?Day, night, done!? during the creation scene.

Some students are an obvious fit for a character. I knew Kyle Hudecek, ’14, would play Father in Cheaper by the Dozen, and Robbie Hill, ’14, would be one of the sons. This year, Robbie, Kyle and John Nyberg, ’14, will each take a turn playing the dad.

Sometimes, a student gets stuck playing a certain type of character. Usually it?s because their acting is so convincing, or their age and gender fit the role perfectly. I promised junior Caitlin Gaines that she would not play the second oldest sister this year . . . three times is plenty!

It?s especially gratifying this year to have several senior students in the play. Some of these actors I?ve known since kindergarten. Senior Tynin Fries, Viviana Hinojosa, Aliciana Quintana, Natalie Ruiz and Robbie Hill performed in a Christmas play for me in their fifth grade year, and here we are performing again in their last year of high school.

Scheduling rehearsals:

In order to be ready, we have to rehearse outside of school hours. Saturday rehearsals are important, because we have a four-hour block to go over the material. We also use the time to bond as a cast, eating lots of pizza and chocolate chip cookies.

No matter how far in advance I schedule rehearsals, several actors are always absent. Sickness, sports or forgetfulness come into play. We just work around it, filling in with other students. I will also take a turn filling in if needed. I like getting on stage with everyone; it lets me get a good idea of how the energy is flowing.

Sets, props, costumes:

Every play has props?things carried on stage by the actors. The set has to be realistic, with furniture, household items, even windows and doors. This takes so much time to build, and we can?t put it on stage until the week before the play. Until then, we use tape on the floor to mark where things will be, and find chairs and tables that are in the room.

Thankfully, we have a master costume designer, Karin Hierholzer, who makes sure everyone looks their best for the play. For this production, student Kiaya Hargis, ’16, acquired boxes of vintage clothes from an estate sale that fit our time frame perfectly. Everyone has ?new? costumes that will take the audience to the 1970s.

Expect the unexpected:

I never really know what will happen, so I have to remain flexible. Last week, a giant black screen was built on the stage for the People?s Church youth group. It wasn?t something that could be easily taken down, so we just had to practice behind it. Actually, it made the actors work harder to project past the screen to where I sat in the main room.

I?ve had props disappear, power go out, alarms go off and set pieces fall apart during a play. I?ll never forget how Ethan Andrew loaned us his dog, Ruth, for a play that required a live animal. Poor Ruth was so happy with her performance that she fell off the stage during the curtain call!

Of course, we will always remember the realistic cat puppet that seemed to find a new place to hide every day. I don?t think I?ve ever laughed so hard as when the water balloon bombs in Meet Me in St. Louis misfired and created a giant ?splash zone? of the audience?s entire front row.

The end is always sad:

Even though I question myself as I set up the stage for the hundredth time, or unload the drama storage unit late at night, or remind students again and again about the mandatory dress rehearsal, I am always sad when the last performance ends. Watching the students put it all together for a great run is so satisfying, and I find myself thinking about the next play . . .

The cast is set to perform four different times: twice on Friday, Nov. 15 for the student body, at 7 p.m., Nov. 16 and again at 4 p.m. for their matinee showing, Nov. 17. Tickets are $5 at the door and all are welcome to attend.

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For more opinions, read the Oct. 31 article, ASB president thankful for small school experience.