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Jesuit drama follows a new script

High school students enjoy their roles as leaders in local high-quality stage productions
by: L.E. BASKOW, Jesuit High School students, including Sean Connell (left), Emily Lewis (center) and Maggie Greene (right) rehearse a scene from the play “Enchanted April” under the direction of Elaine Kloser (sitting, far right), the school’s drama co-director with Jeff Hall.

Jesuit High School's drama department recently completed the extravagant 'Les Misérables,' and for all 11 of the sold-out productions, longtime co-directors Jeff Hall and Elaine Kloser sat in the audience among the other adults.

The kids ran the show - the norm, and part of the education process for one of Oregon's finest high school theater troupes.

'People turned to us and said, 'What are you doing here?' We said, 'We want to enjoy the show, too,' ' Hall says. 'They'd ask, 'When's the show going to start?' and we'd say, 'We don't know, we're not in charge.' '

Senior Austin George served as stage manager for 'Les Mis.' 'It was a little scary at first,' he says, about being in charge of such a big production, which included 78 actors, 20 crew members and 25 in the orchestra. 'By that time, though, you know it so well and learned from and watched the direction (Hall, Kloser) give. It comes naturally, and you do your thing.'

Take in a production at Jesuit High, sitting in the posh Alex L. Parks Performing Arts Center, and one can see what a topnotch show that high school students and their instructors can put on. Jesuit may or may not be the most polished and financed and accomplished theater school in the state - it doesn't matter, Hall says - but it certainly ranks up there.

High school drama accounts for much of the live stage production viewed in the United States. It makes sense, because nearly every high school has a drama department, with affordable tickets (Jesuit's are $10). Newer high schools, such as Westview, Southridge, Liberty and Century, have been built with nice theaters, while others, like Canby and West Linn, have renovated theirs.

Feeling lucky

Hall and Kloser have been at Jesuit for nearly 20 years, since before the Beaverton school went to co-education by adding girls. Phase three of three phases was to enhance drama facilities, and Jesuit's $7.2 million performing arts center features three stages, including the 500-seat Marilyn Moyer Theatre.

Some people leave a Jesuit production from a venue that could rival anything in Portland's professional scene, and probably ask themselves: 'So, this is high school?'

'We're fortunate to have these resources, and the reason we have these resources is because we have an extremely supportive community,' Hall says.

Adds Kloser: 'We do have kids come back from college and say, 'We didn't know how lucky we were.''

Kloser remembers drama at Jesuit before co-ed in 1993, before fundraising landed big bucks to do many improvements. (Alex L. Parks was the father-in-law of Nike founder Phil Knight). Similar to other high schools, Jesuit's actors found themselves crammed into a small, multipurpose room.

'It was a weird, triangle-shaped room, where we did set and costume building, and had classes,' she says. 'We had an accordion door between us and the band, a little closet to store everything. It forced us to be really creative, and it was really fun.'

Now, a subscription base for fans, classrooms, a workshop, a sound system, full 'fly' curtain/ set lifting mechanism, an orchestra pit and more make everything to do with Jesuit drama among the best around. Jesuit sports about 300 kids (including more than 100 boys, a good number) in drama, through classes, drama club or auditions - about one-third of the student population.

'Sometimes you go to theaters, either at high schools or theaters in general, and then you walk in and feel how lucky we are,' senior Niki Petroff says. 'It helps a lot. It brings a boost of confidence, knowing we're in such a good place. You have to do it justice, because anybody would be lucky to perform here.'

An 'epilogue'

Drama in Oregon used to be competitive, a la sports. Hall says the Oregon Thespian Society, which administers high school drama and holds regional competitions, tries to downplay the competitive aspect; rather, 'it has evolved into something with all schools supporting each other,' Kloser says. A conference and regional competition will be held in April.

'It's steered toward celebrating excellence,' adds Hall, an Oregon Thespians board member and past director.

Jesuit's troupe has been honored several times, including to perform at the state festival. The school's production of 'Proof' in 2004 was put on display at the national festival.

Last fall, Jesuit was one of the few high schools, and only one of about 100 performance groups asked to take part in the 'Laramie Project Epilogue,' run by Tectonic Theater of New York. The epilogue revisited the famous play of the real-life tragedy of a gay man killed in Wyoming.

'It was amazing, we were so lucky to do that,' says Petroff, who played Catherine Connolly, an openly gay member of the Wyoming Legislature who fought for same-sex benefits at the University of Wyoming.

The content of Jesuit plays this school year has been kind of heavy - 'Laramie Project Epilogue,' 'Children of a Lesser God' (about deaf people) and 'Les Miserables' (about the French Revolution). Hall and Kloser say they present plays each year with a theme, this year's being 'Journey Into Light.' The next production, 'Enchanted April,' will be lighter in content, and next season 'will probably be a little goofier,' Hall says.

The Jesuit shows generally play before packed houses. Thirteen showings of 'Sound of Music' were sold out last year.

The Jesuit student body has the reputation of including rich and talented kids and achievers. Hall tries to emphasize 'service' to them.

'We can use service to tell our story,' says Kloser, referring to such endeavors as an instrument drive and sing-a-long. 'The way we serve the community is to offer good theater. Kids love that, because it's not just about kids being in the spotlight thing.'

Very professional

Fans might see better acting and productions at the Keller Auditorium, Portland Center Stage or Artists Repertory Theatre. But, Hall adds, nothing beats high school drama.

'You can't beat the investment level of these kids,' he says. 'For that fact alone, I would put it up against anything in terms of entertainment value.'

Hall and Kloser met about 20 years ago when he hired her to be in a play while both were involved with theater in Missoula, Mont. Hall was hired to start the Young People's Theatre Project in Portland and brought Kloser along. From Chicago originally, Hall took over Jesuit drama from Tom Graff, who now teaches at Central Catholic, and Kloser, who's from Indiana, followed him.

Their office is littered with posters and paraphernalia from past performances. '(Elaine) hasn't used her desk in three months,' Hall jokes.

Like many Jesuit students, sophomore Sean Connell, from Tualatin, says he wanted to attend the school to work under Hall and Kloser.

'It's a very nice theater and very professional,' he says. 'It's not just the building, but how they run things. Jeff and Elaine definitely run a professional high school theater program.'

'They bring a level of experience … when they're talking about something or telling you something, they know what they're talking about,' Petroff adds. 'And, there's a level of humility - both are incredibly humble and courteous, always so inviting.'

Adds Hall: 'We have a high-profile program, and it's a draw at this time. We're grateful for what we're able to do. We don't think we're better than anybody else, but we're different. Our talent pool is really deep, and it's almost impossible for us to go wrong. (Students) make us look good.'