- School Life
In the far left corner of the floor of Centennial Hall Theater, wooden raised platforms and boxes are situated next to each other. Two chairs spaced out 6 feet apart are placed toward the front of the stage. Middle school students Hudson Boyle, Grace Coughlin and Bella Bartelli move into position and begin their scene. Alli Jordan, the middle school drama teacher and playwright of the fall middle school play, Anyone but Dakota, observes intently as the students run through the scene.
“I officially call this meeting to order. It’s the 201st meeting of the Secret Trio of Lost Treasures,” says Hudson. “Note taker, are you ready?”
The play is about a young girl named Dakota who so desperately wishes she could look differently: hair that was less crazy and a body of a swan. She is a dancer, and she wants to win the Iowa talent competition and be a graceful dancer like her mother so many years ago. Her trio of friends are also on the hunt for an answer to mysterious alien sightings in Iowa over the years when all of the sudden the two worlds collide through a magical green stone. The green stone has the power to let you change bodies and become whoever you want to be. Everything seems great except when Dakota begins to forget things about herself and must fool everyone around her with an explanation of who the new strange girl is in town. Is the green stone a gift or a curse?
Auditions for the play were held earlier this month, and Alli and the actors' work is now underway to memorize lines, choreograph movements on stage and for students to make the characters their own.
Alli said she came up with the play with an understanding of the COVID-19 guidelines in the school. “I had to find a way to still have a large cast while also social distancing,” she said. Most of the plays that she found that were more pandemic-friendly allowed only for a handful of students. “I wanted as many students to be included as possible while also being safe,” she said.
Ideas percolated through her mind. “My brain would not shut off,” she said. She looked into multiple people playing the same role, but she didn’t want it to be too cheesy. She uncovered how she could utilize magic in order to pull off the transformation. “I spent my summer planning and writing, and Anyone but Dakota was born.”
One way the group maintains social distancing is through the use of all spaces in the theater. The students utilize the balconies to create distancing. They are also employing a lot of monologue scenes and phone conversations. In addition, if someone is wearing the magical green stone, the other characters are concerned about radiation poisoning and maintain their distance.
“One character is afraid of germs; one character never wants to talk to her Dad, so she always shuts him out of her room; and many scenes involve unique blocking to maintain social distancing,” Alli said.
Alli shared that the cast really loves the stories and the characters. So many of them she said come to rehearsal with their lines memorized because they believe in the story. Alli includes their ideas in this play, so it feels like it is their play too. Her student director, Kiki Wood, and student choreographer, Eleni Lepentis, help inspire the cast with their ideas.
"It has a beautiful message about identity, friendship, grief and joy,” she shared. “Has it been challenging putting it together? Yes. But these kids deserve it. Everything in their lives have changed, and I think creating art is a magnificent way to persevere in these times.”
Alli said the story would have never been developed had it not been for the pandemic. “I used to be a playwright who was always writing, and this pandemic ignited a creative spirit that had been missing in my life. We are still working through some challenges, but we are in this together!”