For most Draper students, going back to school means a return to homework, tests, and long days in the classroom. Some may be excited to see old friends and classmates, while others dread the end of relaxing summer days.
But some students at Corner Canyon High School look forward to something entirely different: the opportunity to get back on stage and perform in the high school musical.
True, this high school experience may not be as archetypal as the Homecoming Game or Junior Prom. But for these students, high school would not be the same without theatre classes. They offer a creative outlet, new friends, and, for some, the kindling of a lifelong passion.
Over the past three months of summer, Hope Weaver, this year’s President of the drama club, has enjoyed some traditional summer activities: camps, family vacations, and hanging out with friends. But Weaver has also spent her summer preparing for, and anticipating, her last year on the Corner Canyon stage. “I’m really looking forward to our upcoming musical The Little Mermaid,” she stated. “It’s going to be such a fun show to be a part of and I’m excited to get to know more people.”
And for Phaidra Atkinson, Corner Canyon’s theatre teacher and director, the summer is no time to take a break from her ultimate goal of inspiring students through the performing arts. “I work all summer for at least 15 hours a week,” she says, spending time meticulously planning blocking, preparing for rehearsals, and addressing various logistical challenges, ranging from fundraising to travel preparations. But the workload of the summer is nothing compared to the school year, when, in addition to her normal classroom teaching duties, she rehearses with students during “early mornings, and late, late nights. The work never stops.”
There is plenty of evidence that the hard work of Atkinson (and her technical director Case Spaulding) has paid off. Since Corner Canyon opened four years ago, the drama club has already created a legacy, as well as a reputation for excellence. It can take years to fully build up and develop a theatre department at a large high school, but in less than two years the Chargers had already won state championship trophies at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the UHSAA Drama Competition. These impressive accomplishments, along with many well-received productions of plays and musicals, have earned Corner Canyon a reputation as one of the state’s best theatre programs.
It’s worth noting, however, that neither Atkinson nor Weaver mentioned these accolades as the most memorable or important aspects of their time in theatre. For both of them, their experiences have had rewards that go far beyond trophies or praise.
One of the most memorable moments came from a 2016 performance of the play The Laramie Project. The Laramie Project is based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was brutally murdered in a hate crime that received international attention. The characters in the play are all real people who knew Matthew or were somehow involved in the event. Sam Schino, a student actor, played a doctor who treated Matthew Shepard. In order to research his role, Schino contacted the doctor, named Rulon Stacey, who offered to come see the production and to talk to the cast with his family about his experiences. The cast got the unique opportunity to actually see some of the characters they were playing on stage speak to them in real life. For many students it made the play, which was already an emotionally powerful piece, feel even more real. Atkinson now calls this event, and the directing The Laramie Project in general, one of her favorite memories from teaching at Corner Canyon.
Weaver, meanwhile, emphasizes that her time in theatre has given her more than just opportunities to perform. She remembers her excitement at “doing the fall musicals and [making] good friends who love to do the same thing you do.” For many students, the relationships that come from performing together are uniquely intimate. Members of the school’s Production Company, a team of 20-30 actors and technicians who spend all year working on shows and competition pieces, often form close friendships, and it’s not hard to understand why. The team spends extensive time both during and after class rehearsing. They travel together, compete together, and support each other as a choppy table read turns into a full-scale production. But the closeness of these artists may come from more than the hours spent together. This process is unique in that it requires students to be emotionally honest and vulnerable in order to develop great performances. It may not be a coincidence then that these same intangible skills are also important in developing close, meaningful friendships.
Of course, it does not come easily for teenage actors to express a wide range of emotions publicly on stage. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of Atkinson’s job is guiding students to challenge themselves and work toward a difficult goal. In her teaching, she admits that it is difficult to “get the students to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel if they just hang in there.” But for Atkinson, it is exciting to see students’ work pay off when they present a show they are truly proud of. And, she hopes that the skills she teaches: work ethic, dedication, and goal setting, will have implications that reach far beyond the stage.
This year, Corner Canyon is presenting several diverse productions. In September, the Productions Company will showcase many short Shakespeare scenes that will be taken to competition in Cedar City. (They are reining State Champions.) In January, students will perform in one-act plays directed by other students. In March, the students will perform the Elizabethan tragedy Doctor Faustus, and the final show in May will be the musical Happy Days, based on the television series of the same name.
But perhaps the most significant production of the season is Corner Canyon’s fall musical. Every year, it is the production that is largest in scale. All Corner Canyon students are eligible to audition, and each year dozens do. The production involves the entire performing arts department. The choir director, Melissa Thorne, leads music rehearsals. Songs are played live by a student orchestra. The Dance Company is featured in many musical numbers. Behind the scenes, student technicians run sound and lighting, build the set, and run the show. And in many productions, including The Little Mermaid, young children are invited to audition. Most years, the show has involved more than 200 students.
For many of these students, the fall musical is the first time they actively create art, instead of just witnessing it. For them, the process is thrilling and entirely new. And Corner Canyon Theatre Department makes a point to ensure that their performance involves the larger community. Local businesses donate to the program and advertise in the musical, which is expensive to produce. And the large number of students involved ensures that many Draper residents know at least one person in the show. Many families have made attending the fall musical every year a tradition.
Despite the pressure of her work, Atkinson seems unfazed and ready for the challenge. She is excited to start a new season and encourages people who may not be theatre aficionados to give her shows a chance. “If you want to see an amazing group of performers with a lot of heart and passion and amazing, killertalent, come see a show at Corner Canyon High. We have an amazing team and are so lucky to be surrounded by such a strong community of support!” she says.
And for Atkinson, the relationship she forms with students is the most important reason to keep coming back to work. Even after her years of teaching, she is still excited “by seeing students get excited filling their passion for the arts, being creative, reaching into their souls and digging out things that they didn’t even know existed. I would never do what I do if it wasn’t for them!”