Pasco County's high school musical season has students playing 1940s gangsters and transforming from princes into beasts. They dance with rival gang members and sing to giant alien monster plants.
"I do drama because it's part of my life," said Mitchell High School sophomore Emily Munger, an ensemble member for her school's production of Beauty and the Beast. "You get to act something so different than who you are."
The productions give students an opportunity to stretch themselves — unless the role is deemed beyond their reach.
At Mitchell, drama teacher David O'Hara regularly casts a handful of roles to adults, including himself, even when students are available. He's playing the asylum guard in Beauty, and last year played Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof.
"There are many reasons for doing this, but the more important ones to me are, first, not placing a student in a position of possible failure in a performance by putting them in a role beyond their experience or talent to play effectively," O'Hara wrote to the Times.
"Secondly, I believe the students learn more effectively observing adults modeling the approach to working on a play that I teach in class. Finally, I find that the students take what they do more conscientiously and maturely when working with adults."
Other county high schools do not entirely share that philosophy.
Neither does School Board member Alison Crumbley, whose daughter is a thespian at River Ridge High.
"Going back to last year, when we were facing tremendous cutbacks, we received an outpouring, an outcry from parents. 'Please save the drama program. Save the athletics,' " Crumbley said.
The board protected the programs even as it meant failing to comply with class size rules.
"We're going to be fined for it," she said. "We took that risk to keep those things intact for the students. I underscore that — for our students. That's who these programs are for."
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Involved students and teachers say drama offers several important lessons, such as teamwork and professionalism. It's an outlet for teens to express themselves and their creativity.
Sometimes the challenge might be too much, though, O'Hara said.
He explained that he will sometimes choose plays with parts that students may not have the chops for because the titles attract an audience or because they have several other roles that play to student strengths.
Fiddler on the Roof raised more money for Mitchell drama than any other show or fundraiser — a big deal when money is tight and simply acquiring performance rights can cost hundreds.
Gulf High and Pasco High can't even afford to have drama programs anymore.
"We don't do things because they're really easy," O'Hara said. "We do them because they're hard."
The choice to put adults in student plays is up to individual schools, said Florida Association of Theater Educators president Christa Whittaker.
"There is no blanket rule that covers us," Whittaker said. "We all use our own judgment."
The majority of Pasco County drama teachers said they will use adults in cameos, walk-ons and undesired roles. It's a rare occurrence, though.
"We've had to do it twice," River Ridge High teacher Diana Rogers said. In Grease, "none of the students wanted to be creepy Vince Fontaine. Everyone wanted to do the hand jive. And in Damn Yankees, none of the guys wanted to be old Joe."
For the recently closed Little Shop of Horrors, by contrast, the school double-cast the roles so more students had the chance to perform. Adults did have some offstage responsibilities, she added, such as stage hands.
Sunlake High drama teacher Carla Nolan planned to cast an administrator as Principal McGee in Grease last year, but ditched that idea when faced with an outpouring of student interest. One Sunlake teacher does have a brief walk-on role as an extra in this year's production of West Side Story.
"We don't allow adults to be principals, as that would take a role away from a student," Nolan said. "However, we believe that teachers and other adult school personnel can be great assets in our productions, and it provides an opportunity for kids to see them in a new light."
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Darrell Huling, a district curriculum supervisor and former River Ridge choral instructor, is playing Belle's father in Mitchell's production of Beauty and the Beast. Last year, he was Tevye, the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof.
Students weren't asked to audition for the role. A student was Huling's understudy.
"I don't think I have ever taken a role from a student," said Huling, who's played roles at county schools over 20 years. "I certainly hope I haven't."
No one wants to see a student flop in front of a large audience, he said. So he makes himself available, just in case.
"I've always seen it as a great way to support the growth of students," Huling said.
Mitchell sophomore Jeff Schoonmaker, who plays LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, was Huling's backup as Tevye. The closest he got to the stage in that show was dress rehearsal.
He said it was easy to get into the character of goofy, clumsy LeFou and win the part. Not so much for town elder Tevye.
"I couldn't play the role convincingly. I'm 16," he said. "I couldn't play a man who's 50 with $5. I know that more than anyone. I was really glad Mr. Huling played Tevye. I learned a lot from him."
Others in the show shared that view, including the girl who played Golde — Tevye's wife — opposite Huling. She won the spot after an adult declined it.
Marissa Kraus, a 16-year-old junior who's Belle in Beauty, said she "couldn't have successfully played an older character without being surrounded by the adults. It helps us understand how to act like an adult."
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Students in Wesley Chapel High's show Presidents! The Musical, written by teacher Sean Gaudet, couldn't fathom adults taking roles in their production.
"If they want that opportunity, why don't they go somewhere else? To a theater that isn't at a school?" said junior Julia Todd, who plays a senator in the show.
Sophomore Jessica Gonzalez plays a 125-year-old "Granny" in Presidents! She said it's often tough to remember to affect the walk and talk of a person who's so old. But she's trying.
"We have makeup to make me look old. I'm still working on my voice," she said. "Somebody in acting could always pass off as an old person. This is a school. None of the kids are old."
Gaudet didn't write off the idea of giving adults small cameos in school plays. But as a rule, he takes the approach that students do everything come performance time. He watches from the audience while a student directs.
"I'd rather the play [stunk], but that it's theirs," Gaudet said as his cast rehearsed. "There is something instructive in looking at something you didn't do so well. If you become afraid of failure, it becomes systemic."
That is, in fact, much of acting's allure for many students.
"We put on a lot of shows that have adult roles played by kids," said Wesley Chapel senior Chrissy Herreid, the play's narrator. "I've played an old guy before. … That's the challenge and the thrill of acting — being someone you're not."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.