Cawthra Park Secondary School is a high school in Ontario, they are very well known for the Regional Arts Program (RAP program). This is a program where kids will audition for a specific major, (Drama, Dance, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music, and Visual Arts), if you get accepted you will have the privilege of studying that art every day for four years. Students will have the opportunity to workshop and meet with wonderful guest artists, go on field trips to see professional productions, and have opportunities to travel. The drama program at Cawthra is great for studying all the different areas of theatre, both on and off stage, as well as touching a little bit on film and what it’s like to act for the camera. Not only is the Cawthra RAP drama program amazing for studying and exploring the many aspects of theatre, but Cawthra is also very well known for its illustrious shows. With an auditorium of over 500 seats and state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, Cawthra puts on up to six wonderful productions. In a usual year, they produce a fall musical, four students written and produced one-act plays – two of which will go on to compete in the NTS festival, and a spring play.
The auditions for the fall musical run on the first Sunday after the first day of school. Your audition with about four to eight bars of music from a song from the musical. The sheet music and accompaniment are provided to you, the choice of song will determine what part you’re auditioning for (i.e male lead, female lead, ensemble). Throughout the week people will be called back for dance callbacks, and acting callbacks after school. By Friday, the cast list is posted. Rehearsals go from Monday to Thursday after school for about 2-3 hours, as well as weekly full-day Sunday rehearsals for approximately two to three months. It is a huge time commitment to bring the show to life, through the process, different crews are brought on such as the Props Crew, the Costume Crew, Hair and Makeup, Box office, Front of House, and many more. The cast and crew end up being around 150 people, the cast usually being around 50. The last Cawthra musical production was the teen edition of Chicago in September – November of 2019. Chicago is set in the roaring 1920s following Roxie Hart, an aspiring Vaudevillian star, when she murders her lover she gets arrested and thrown in the Cook County Jail. There she meets her role model and personal hero, Velma Kelly, and as they both get the same greedy lawyer, Billy Flynn, they are head to head to win the spotlight. Though instead of getting fame onstage, they seem to get the attention of the reporters.
The four student-written one-act plays are picked from a panel of 10 students, ranging from grades 9 to 12 and a teacher. The panel as a group chooses “the best” four one-act plays. Those four go on to be fully produced. Student-directed, student managed and student actors. Those four end up competing in an In-House competition where an adjudicator comes in and views all four shows in what is put on as the Cawthra Drama Festival or just Drama Fest. The adjudicator will then choose two to go on in the National Theatre School Festival. Cawthra tends to go to Provincials. all the student-written plays are usually due in October for the panel to choose the four plays and start rehearsals before the winter break. They would perform by the end of February and the beginning of March.
The spring play kind of overlaps with the four student-written plays, though it is not impossible to do both. The spring play auditions happen pretty early on, in February, and they perform around the end of April and early May. The way it functions is very similar to the fall musical where there are callbacks throughout the week and then a final cast list posted at the end of the week. The cast is around 30-50 students while there is a large number of crew members. The total number of students also ends up in the three digits. This allows many students to get involved in Cawthra’s productions. The most recent spring play shows were Our Town and Girls Like That both done in February – May of 2019. Our Town follows the daily life of a small village girl, Emily. She resides in Grover’s Corners and there she kindles a friendship with her neighbour George, and the play follows their relationship for about 12 years. Girls Like That follows a group of girls that have gone to an all-girls school from pre-school to graduation. When a naked photo of Scarlett is leaked to the internet rumours spread and her relationships with the girls she has grown up with begin to crumble. The play talks about gender equality and the effects of living in a digital generation.
The great thing about these big productions is that during the shows, everything is run by the students. The Stage Management and Tech team, as well as the crew heads usually consist of senior students. This helps give the students more experience and opportunity to explore the aspect of theatre they enjoy. Cawthra’s productions are also open to all the students of Cawthra, not just those in the RAP program. This allows for students to meet those outside of their major, and make new friends all while taking part in something they all love.
Another opportunity Cawthra gives to their drama major students is that a lot of the projects done in the senior years (grades 11 and 12) are put on for an audience. For example, in grade 11 there is a final project called 12:30 Theatre, where students write, direct, act and manage a show about 20 – 30 minutes long and performances are done at 12:30 for other students to come to see. Similarly projects in grade 12 where students work on them during class and then they are put on for a larger audience such as the production of Love and Information. The final exam for grade 12s would be Play-In-A-Day where the grade 12 classes are tasked with creating a show within only a single school day, halfway through the day the teachers give them a curveball, such as getting the groups to insert a random grade 9 into their show. Each group of about 10 students are also given 10 of the same prop (e.g 10 hula hoops, 10 buckets etc.) and those props have to somehow be integral to their show. At the end of the day family and friends are invited into the auditorium to witness all four shows. The event is also an opportunity for students to work as Front of House and see what their final project would be. It is also a chance for the teachers to hand out awards to deserving students such as Excellence in the Classroom, TA (Teacher assistant) Award, Crew Boss – given to the student with the most crew hours, which are hours students receive when they work on a crew for a Cawthra production. There are a few awards for the seniors as well. This final project ends up being a celebration of the drama program and being able to participate in the wonderful shows any way you can, whether it’s cast or crew. It is a great and memorable way to send off the seniors.
With COVID-19 the shows have had to be put on pause. Though in the year 2021 Cawthra ended up creating a virtual musical of Matilda. Everything was done in isolation, from recording the songs, dances, and scenes to editing everything together. Main cast members were given green screens to put up behind them as they filmed, the greenscreens were passed around through the main cast as there were more actors than screens. There would be weekly google meets to learn the songs, dances and blocking for scenes, about three times a week. There were opportunities to have review days, send in your singing to get feedback before you send it officially, and a place to workshop scenes. It was a difficult and strange process, both staff and students were treading unknown waters – though through all the trial and tribulations came a very unique and creative production of Matilda. All the hard work and dedication for the show were definitely worth it. The show had a virtual opening night and was available for only 30 days after, this way friends and family were able to enjoy the amazing show.
In 2022, Cawthra is continuing to produce the four student-written plays. With the restrictions coming down and life slowly transitioning back to a version of “normal” Cawthra theatre is slowly building back up. As the Cawthra Theatre Festival is underway, the fall musical has been re-worked to follow a more showcase structure with a cast of 25 students, selected songs from the show Something Rotten will be performed. It has been renamed The Spring Spectacular. The Spring Event along with the Cawthra Theatre Festival each have tech teams who will stage-manage and run lights and sound. Each show in the Cawthra Theatre Festival has their own mini team, with a Stage Manager, an Assistant Stage Manager, lighting, and sound. Cawthra is currently rebuilding its tech team since the pandemic has stopped the natural process of the seniors teaching the younger crew members. Everyone is either relearning or learning for the first time how to run all the technology in the auditorium, and how to run a show.
Amongst all the chaos there is a lot of hope for Cawthra theatre and its future shows. Hopefully, within the next school year shows will be fully running again, and things can go back to normal including six wonderful productions. Cawthra is already planning next year’s fall musical, the full version of Something Rotten, hopefully having a full-size cast and crew. Something Rotten is a comedic musical that centers around two brothers who set out to write the world’s best musical mashing up sixteenth century Shakespeare with modern Broadway. Since the pandemic theatre has been struggling to get back on its feet, high school theatre is no different. As more restrictions are being lifted and things are returning back to normal, theatre is slowly opening up again. As there are already new plans for the following school year, there is an initiative to rebuild Cawthra’s tech team by meeting during lunches to learn about how to control the lights and sound of the auditorium, and with the creative leads that usually direct and/or produce these productions I am sure that Cawthra will be able to come back stronger than ever before.
If everyone is moving forward together, then success will take care of itselfHenry Ford