FH-Chess: The Drama Behind the Drama
by Samm J.
Talk about signing away your soul. When I first inked my name among the long list of other Fredericton High School students hoping to ace their auditions for the fall musical production, I had no idea where it would lead me. My initial thoughts on it were that I had taken part the previous year, and had enjoyed myself quite a bit. Plus, having gotten a lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I was pretty sure of my performance capability. That year, however, I never really made an effort to include myself. I shied away from cast members, too nervous to go forth and make friends. I vowed this year would be different. In the moment the my pen hit the sign up sheet I was engrossed in a fairytale where the kids of Production would open their arms to me in welcome, singing praises in perfect harmony and embracing me warmly into their already close-knit family.
It didn’t take long for my fantasy to shatter.
It’s true that not everything about taking part in Chess caused knots to form in my stomach, hysteria to erratically erupt and sleepless nights to flourish. Those rare peaceful moments were the ones that made the whole experience worthwhile. Nevertheless, from the first audition to the final performance – and even after that – my life became a bad TV drama. And not the pleasant kind, either, like when the main character goes through foolish turmoil for most of the episode but gets it all worked out in the end. Oh, you could laugh at the irony of most of the situations I got tangled up in. Just don’t laugh too hard…because someone’s got a knife to your throat.
It isn’t as if anyone was deliberately trying to stir up trouble. However, you can’t bring together the most dramatic, hormonal, attention-seeking teenagers in the entire school and expect everything to be picture perfect.
It started right from the auditions. Now, although I may have been a newbie to Production (or, Prod, as they call it on the ‘in’ circle), I have been participating in Theatre New Brunswick, a local acting school, for ten years. I was no stranger to auditions, and singing two songs in front of a few school teachers didn’t frighten me much to think about. It was when I was lined up with the other kids who were auditioning that I failed to acknowledge the first warning signs; three girls fell into an argument over who got to use the piano room to practice first. It got heated, and ended with one girl running off in tears. I blamed it on the nerves; how foolish I was back then.
Call-backs put everyone on edge. Twenty hopeful students going after eight parts is a disaster waiting to happen, especially since there were only three girl parts available. However, everybody kept their cool around others. Why let on how jealous you are of someone’s singing or acting ability when you can just vent about it later behind their back?
At the call-backs we were thrown together for seven hours and pushed to our limits when it came to performing. I had taken the liberty of memorizing my songs and scenes the week before, while others were studying for exams. They may seem barmy to some, but I do have my priorities sorted. I knew I wanted the lead character, Florence, and also knew I had a very good chance of getting her. The day before the auditions Mrs. Illyana Vermeersch (music teacher, glee choir instructor and pit band conductor), actually pulled me aside to say, “Mr. Dunfield is thinking about you for the main part.”
Dwight Dunfield was my homeroom teacher for three years, and also happens to be the director of the school musical. It was actually him who convinced me to join Production in my eleventh year because he heard me singing every morning in class. However, my bond with Dunfield was not the greatest thing at that point; when I did end up with the main role, rumours flew about how he only gave it to me because he liked me. Being quite a self-conscious person already, this circulating thought didn’t manage to boost my morale. My best friend at the time, Matt LeBlanc, also got a main part, and kept me in the loop about who hated me which days.
“I tend to stay away from the drama,” he told me quite sarcastically when I inquired to his thoughts about it (we both know it is impossible to avoid the drama of drama). “Everyone’s emotions are at a climax, therefore they tend to clash.”
Feelings certainly run high during the weeks leading up to the show. Practices were held every day after school for a lot of the leads, and they were intent on pulling us as far as we could stretch, vocally and emotionally. Many of the rehearsals were spent discussing character development, and figuring out why these people were so deeply wounded. Chess is not a happy musical, to say the least – especially for Florence. Her first boyfriend treats her like dirt, and the man she falls in love with next is already married, and leaves her in the end because his career is the only thing he really wants to stay true to. One of the vocal directors, Joanna Doak, had me in tears after every practice I spent with her.
Needless to say, everyone’s buttons were a little pushed.
Conflicts arose at every path; firstly as the chorus turned on some of the leads. Connor Grey, a tenth-grader with a relatively large part for his year, stated, “There’s always drama. Most of my friends were in the chorus so I, like, never saw them.” Though it happens most years, the chorus does get a little miffed when a cast member with a big part gets cocky. For instance, one of the largest roles was filled by a guy who has been a lead for a few years now, and he got a bit full of himself. He began to act as though he were a movie star. He couldn’t see how much damage he was causing with his insolence.
Whether he was simply oblivious to emotional drama or just chose to ignore it is unclear. However, this boy was also involved in some of the most serious scandals of the production year. He fought the director’s authority on many things, from the musical score to when the rehearsal times were scheduled. He also managed to come very close to starting an actual fistfight with Matt LeBlanc over something he wasn’t supposed to be involved with in the first place.
Now, none of this makes him a bad person, of course. Something snapped in all of us sooner or later during those three months of chaos. Trying to put a show together in such a short amount of time is a rather stressful conundrum. I myself worried about much; would I know all my lines, my music? I had over two hundred pages of musical score to memorize, almost twice as much as anyone else. What if I flubbed up on stage?
Also, I wondered if the lead girls would ever accept me. The other two principle female leads seemed almost spiteful of me, evidently because I had a bigger part than them. But more than that, the year before we were all narrators…and yet I had had more lines than them then, too. Plus there was the fact that two years previously, one of the girls dated the guy I had just recently broken up with. And now the third girl was having a fling with him. The whole scenario was awkwardly ironic, but was never brought up between us.
There were also tensions between myself and one of the main guys (the same one that almost threw the punches) because we had sort of dated the summer before, and it ended badly because I realized I didn’t actually like him in that way. What cut deeper was the scene in which I got to dump him onstage…multiple times. I don’t know if he ever realized the significance of it, but for me it was actually a great venting system; that way I didn’t have to yell at him personally, and my frustration with him would never boil over to hurt his feelings in real life.
I suppose that not everything was so terrible. Alex Landine, a grade twelve student who I’ve been chummy with since the sixth grade, played the part of Anatoly, the man with whom Florence falls in love. Because we had so many scenes together we carpooled practically everywhere, and many a time, when rehearsals began to end at midnight, we would sit up in his kitchen drinking herbal tea and chatting until the early hours of the morning. It gave us the time to grow closer; he became my best friend, and I’m glad I took part in Chess, if only for that.
I’m also thankful for a brand new friend I made. Right as the cast party began after the last night’s show I found one girl sobbing in the washroom. She told me, eventually, that her best friend had died and she couldn’t go to the funeral because it was in Saskatchewan that very day. We snuck into the gym locker room and talked for an hour and a half, and I think she appreciated the chance to open up to someone about the way she was feeling. Since then we have hung out plenty of times, and I now call myself her honorary sister. Sure, I missed the cast party, but I’m so blessed for the opportunity to give her the support she needed in that moment.
Chess enabled a great many opportunities, reflecting on it now. Not only did it strengthen my voice and acting ability, but it taught me self-restraint when I had to hold in my bubbling emotions. It let me see into the world of theatre geeks (as terrifying as the view was). It helped me learn to channel my emotions into a character. It gave me responsibilities to uphold. Most ironically, it allowed me to fall into some very close relationships; including one with someone who wasn’t even in the musical. An FHS graduate came to see the show and we hit it off in the car when Alex and I gave him a lift home. It’s only a few months later and I can happily call this new friend a little more than a friend.
Looking back on everything that went on during the production of Production, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of it. I might even go so far as to say that I detested it many times. Still, taking part in Chess matured me somehow. Perhaps it is because I could finally see though childish high school dilemmas. People get angry over the silliest of things. It’s petty and frustrating and, to be honest, rather annoying.
However, I do not regret that first day I signed my name in the 4:15 timeslot. Our experiences shape who we are as people, and I certainly learned much about myself during those three months of torture. It’s a strange sort of world to live in – a ridiculously dramatic one. Surely I’m quite glad I’m done with it, but somehow…I might even miss it.
Perhaps there was a thespian demon hidden deep inside of me that escaped its confinement somewhere along the way. If so, we can only hope that I saved the receipt from when the FHS Musical Production bought my soul.
Just in case I’d like a refund.