Fair Lawn High School Brings Social Issues to the Stage
The high school's production of Runaways runs this Thursday through Sunday.
This article originally ran on Jan. 10, 2013:
Fair Lawn High School’s musical production, "Runaways," opens this week and actors have been preparing for a production that touches the world offstage more than most of those in the past.
"Runaways," a musical about displaced youth that originally debuted on Broadway in 1978, runs from March 21 to 24. The production, director John Giresi said, has been an opportunity to develop social awareness as much as music and acting chops.
Giresi, who has led a long career working with various theatre groups, has focused in recent years on selecting pieces that have educational value both on and off the stage.
“I want the [rest] of my career to be filled with exciting work and pieces that mean something, that are educational, that increase public awareness,” he said.
"Runaways" seemed a perfect fit. The production revolves around about 30 homeless teenagers, using musical numbers and monologues to illuminate their experiences. This will be Giresi’s third time directing the piece—the first time with Fair Lawn—and while working on it with a theatre group in the eighties he attended a workshop with its author, Elizabeth Swados.
Swados had developed the original production through work with real life homeless teens, and Giresi sought to maintain the element of realism in the upcoming Fair Lawn production.
With this show, he said, “the content is so dramatic, so intense that it would be foolish to have [the actors] do anything on stage until they totally know what’s going on inside the head of the character. So it’s going to be much more of a method acting approach for this, where the students are doing more research, soul searching and working out things intellectually before they...become the character externally.”
Part of the process was a field trip by the cast to Newark’s Covenant House on November 29. Covenant House provides shelter and support to the kind of homeless youth that "Runaways" is based on.
“Since the piece dealt with, or is based upon, real life accounts from runaway teens from 1978, I strongly felt that the students needed a deeper, more probing process in their preparation for their roles," Giresi said. "Because of the subject matter being more serious I felt that I wanted to make this more of an educational experience as opposed to just a pure theater performance experience to entertain an audience."
The student actors did theater exercises with the residents at Covenant House to break the ice, and afterward the residents volunteered to share their experiences with the group. One of the most enlightening experiences occurred when the two groups participated in an improvisational exercise on where they see themselves in five years and found that there were more similarities than each might have imagined.
“A lot of it was just finding common ground that we all shared,” Giresi said, “so that the students playing these roles know that characters that are in difficult times are still people that have dreams and goals and want happiness.”
Giresi said the residents appreciated the opportunity to connect to people their own age. One resident told him it was the first time a teenager had ever visited the house. There is talk of a Covenant House trip to see the production this week.
With the trip, Giresi said, his students not only gained a social awareness of conditions beyond their own experiences, but gained insights into how to relate to and develop their characters.
Giresi hopes that the learning experiences of the students in preparing for their roles will help educate the audience as well.
“I really want this to be more than just another show, but really create a nice outreach, educational experience, [and] increase awareness about the various issues around these young people.”
The production opens Thursday with a 7:30 p.m. showing, starts at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and closes with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are between $10 and $20, depending on the section, and can be purchased weekdays from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm in the school cafeteria, or online at www.flhsmusical.com.