TOWNSHEND — When the Leland and Gray (L&G) Players, the theater program at Leland & Gray Union Middle/High School, was left without direction at the end of the summer, the administration hustled:
"It was very funny, actually," recalls Doran "Dory" Hamm, 38, the newly appointed Players' director. "The previous theater director left relatively quickly, so they put out a call."
The three "main people who applied were us three," Hamm said, referencing himself and the other two people in a Zoom interview with The Commons: Shannon Ward, 32, and Ben Stockman, 38.
"I think [Leland & Gray] went with me because I had the most availability," surmises Hamm, who was asked by the hiring team if he might want to work with the other two candidates.
"They said the names, and I was like, 'Are you joking?!'" he says.
Stockman adds: "We'd just finished touring a show together in July 2023," Vermont Suitcase Company's The Feeble Fantastical, an adaptation of Molière's The Hypochondriac.
"The three of us have known each other for years and years and have worked together for a long time," Ward interjects.
Adds Hamm: "We're pals, colleagues; we've remained friends through the years. We were in the same theater company; we've all worked together as teachers. We go way back."
All Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) alumni, Hamm, Stockman, and Ward devoured the programs at New England Youth Theatre (NEYT), where they learned the many tasks and talents involved in mounting a theatrical production.
All three studied theater in college and, in Stockman's case, in graduate school.
Regarding collaborating, Hamm adds, "I'd much rather work with others - with friends I know and trust - and get paid less than work by myself."
'They had an actual budget for us'
Employing a traditional production model with the L&G Players, Hamm is director in charge of shaping the play, and clearly vested in the overall health of the program. Cassidy Majer, a fellow NEYT/BUHS alumna, assists. Stockman (with the help of a student crew) is technical director in charge of sets, costumes, props, sound, and lights. Ward is on board as producer tending to publicity, production logistics, and the front-of-house duties.
Jeremy Kellett, L&G's choral director, is music director, and Sarah Grasso, L&G's high school counselor and a dance teacher, assists with choreography and movement.
Of L&G's support of the Players, Hamm adds that "they had an actual budget for us, which is not the case everywhere."
Leland & Gray, he says, is dedicated "to making sure that their theater program has the support needed to make it one of quality for the students," even though, he acknowledges, the program's scene shop, intended for construction of props, sets, and costumes, has been reassigned to another program, one that is not related to the performing arts.
The November musical, Mean Girls, with book by Tina Fey, was chosen by last year's Players, Hamm explains. "Obviously they chose the musical because they relate to it," he says.
As described in the L&G Players' media release, Cady Heron, the play's protagonist, "may have grown up on an African savanna, but nothing prepared her for the wild and vicious ways of her strange new home: suburban Illinois."
"How will this naive newbie rise to the top of the popularity pecking order? By taking on 'The Plastics,' a trio of lionized frenemies led by the charming but ruthless Regina George. But when Cady devises a plan to end Regina's reign, she learns the hard way that you can't cross a queen bee without getting stung."
The seminal message, says Hamm, is not to be mean as teenagers, "'cause it's easy to be, and you have to work a little harder to not be mean."
"I made that kind of the heart of the rehearsal process," he says, urging that the kids give space for each other to work without fear of being shut down.
"No one can feel like if they do something on stage and it doesn't turn out how they want it to be that they'll be made fun of. That kills creativity," he adds.
"Overall, it's a very simple concept, but it's so well written that in rehearsal, when we were talking about one of the characters, the new kid in the school, one Player said, 'That's absolutely how it feels to be a new kid in the school. You walk through the halls, and everyone's staring at you like you have two heads.'"
Being hired so late in the game, the team had to hustle to catch up with auditions and rehearsals. Even so, says Hamm, "I don't believe in the stress model. I think capitalism instills that in everything we do, and I've been working so much with the kids" to avoid that.
The Players' modus operandi under Hamm et al. is: "You avoid [the stress-driven path] by doing the work collectively."
Hamm and collaborators all believe in giving student players agency in the creative process: As Ward says, "an important thing that's on display in this process is that all of us really value letting the kids have ownership over their work," in all facets of production, including technical.
"We went in for an initial tech meeting," Ward recalls, and the Players' seasoned crew gave the new team a tour while sharing essential information about lights, sound, and all the technical aspects "they knew so much about."
"It was incredible," she adds. "Current students were part of the interview process, so I think L&G really values that ownership, and we do, too. We're trying to foster that."
"We are all collaborators in the room," Stockman adds, underscoring his team's commitment to inclusivity and student empowerment.
Return of 'Hats Off!' cabaret
Plans for the remainder of the Players' season include participation in the State One-Act Play Festival, Hamm reports, and a revival of Hats Off!, a cabaret-style show the Players conceived and coined two decades ago.
Reinstating its original context and concept, Hamm says the Players "would still choose what they want to do, but it'll be performed from within the context of a set time and space."
"The arts are so important in schools," says L&G Principal Dana Aquardo.
In general, the arts "allow students to explore the human experience and express their own inner human experiences," he adds.
And, in particular, "We are so grateful Dory is here," Aquardo adds. "I have only heard positive things from students."
Performances of Mean Girls: The Musical at Dutton Gymnasium at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, 2042 VT-30, are Nov. 9, 10, and 11; Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are cash only at the door; $10 for general admission, and $8 students and seniors.
This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.