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Casper students hone skills in preparation for state drama competition
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Casper students hone skills in preparation for state drama competition

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A student delivered her line with an annoyed tone in the Natrona County High School theater classroom.

“In this world there is a kind of painful progress,” she snapped. “Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”

The mismatch between the words and her demeanor drew laughter from the other students and Utah Valley University assistant professor of dance Sarah Donohue, who led a workshop Nov. 26 for a theater method called Laban movement.

NC drama teacher Zach Schneider advised the students to use the techniques as they practice their pieces for this weekend’s Wyoming State Thespian Festival at the University of Wyoming.

“I think they’re going to help that believability piece, that characterization part that’s in the movement,” he told them.

About 800 students from around Wyoming will participate in this year’s event, which offers a chance to vie for state medals and scholarships as well as to advance to the International Thespian Festival, said Schneider, an organizer for the festival as the chapter director for Wyoming Thespians. Students from around Wyoming will present monologues to group pieces as well as technical theater projects like scenic design and costume design during the festival Thursday through Saturday. They’ll receive feedback and participate in workshops with theater professionals, according to a UW press release about the event.

The annual statewide drama competition is a chance for students to gain experience and educational opportunities in theater. For the majority of schools around the state that don’t have full-time theater programs or formally trained teachers like Casper, the festival provides opportunities for coaches and students that they may not receive otherwise, Schneider said.

“So competition, education and the third thing is community,” he said. “That there are other students in the state that love doing theater, and this allows them to come together and celebrate each other.”

Preparations with new techniques

Last week Donohue gave workshops at Kelly Walsh and Casper College, which invited her through a Board of Cooperative Educational Services grant. Her visit happened to coincide with the high school students’ final preparation for the state competition, Schneider said. It also gave them an idea of what the theater workshops at the festival will be like, he said.

Donohue in the workshop led students through ways to stand and move to physically convey different emotions and characters. They recited brief lines she gave them and discovered how the way carried their bodies affects how they deliver the words.

She showed how “body attitudes” convey meaning, and how they can be congruous or deliberately incongruous — which can be useful in situations like physical humor or conveying awkwardness, she said.

The students experimented with different stances, postures and leading with different areas of the body, like the head, chest or pelvis. Donohue suggested they try different options as they develop characters.

Jillian Wallace left thinking of ways to use the techniques for a duet scene she’ll perform at the festival about two teens facing a pregnancy scare.

“We were really struggling finding, like, a physically romantic relationship in our scene, because we were just friends,” she said.

Her duet partner, Trenton Cothren, planned to experiment with how his character paces during the scene.

“It was just like a really great way to look at the movement of walking, like whether or not I should take long strides or short strides,” he said.

‘Broadening their toolbox’

Even after the competition, the students will continue to study and use the Laban movement vocabulary, Schneider said.

Guest artists at the school and the upcoming festival bring a chance for students to learn a variety of techniques. There’s no one way to act, so they can use what works for them, he said.

“So our job is really to just give them those experiences to maybe broaden their toolbox,” Schneider said.

The Laban movement workshop offers useful ways for teens to hone their physical acting, which is hard for the age group, Schneider said.

“I mean, they spend so much time being uncomfortable within their own bodies, trying to teach them how to be comfortable in another character’s body is challenging,” he said. “And what I like about Laban movement is it gives you specific things to do. It puts names on actions, and I think for teenagers, that’s a really valuable thing.”

After the workshop, Cothren rehearsed pair of monologues featuring contrasting characters. He and Schneider talked about ways he can use the Laban movement techniques to differentiate each character. The more grounded, aggressive and calculating character would lead with his stomach, they agreed. They analyzed the other character, who’s more unsure and less comfortable in his own skin.

“I think it’s head and heart. I think he thinks too much. I think he thinks about feelings and the consequences of his feelings,” Schneider said.

Cothren and Wallace have worked on their pieces for months along with their duties as Wyoming State Thespian officers. Earlier, they’d taken part in video conference call with officers around the state to plan the opening ceremonies, a fundraiser and other tasks.

The Wyoming state drama competition has been affiliated with the International Thespian Society for the past three years, and has been renamed the Wyoming State Thespian Festival this year, Schneider said. The affiliation has added workshops and an international level of competition after the annual state event, he said.

Students will participate in a variety of events. Wallace plans to compete in events including film, monologue and scholarship competition, while Cothren will present stage manager and scenic design projects representing his work in school productions.

“I’m really excited to show case all of the work I’ve put in,” Wallace said. “It’s not necessarily, for me, about the prize or the all-state medal. It’s more for just the art to be acknowledged. I mean, we’ve put so many hours toward this, and it’s just nice to share it with somebody else who it could impact.”

Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner

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