Verona Area High School’s autumn musical has a marketing problem. It’s a terrific show, with a terrible title, say its directors Heather Thorpe and Brian Cowing.
The Verona Area High School theater department is gearing up to perform “Urinetown” on Sept. 29, 30 and Oct. 1.
“Urinetown” is described as a “musical satire of the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, municipal politics, and musical theater itself.”
The show is set in a dystopian future where a water shortage caused by a 20-year drought has led to a government-enforced ban on private toilets. All citizens must use public amenities, regulated by a single malevolent company that profits by charging admission for a basic human need. The protagonist is a hero who decides that he’s had enough and plans a revolution to lead them all to freedom.
In reality, that terrible title is part of an in-joke, as characters within the play break the fourth wall to address it with the audience. Though, the marketing problem can be real.
But while that may put the show at a slight disadvantage, audience members who overcome that will be rewarded by an advantage that Verona Area High School productions have – summer camp.
Over two weeks from Aug. 15-24, a group of 50 students memorized songs, lines, and dances over six hours a day Monday through Friday, and the stage crew also met during those days.
“Summer camp is not something a lot of schools get to do,” Cowing said. “We focus all our attention on the show and a week and a half summer camp is equivalent to two months of after-school practice.”
Students have already learned around three quarters of the show, he said.
That detailed attention before schools starts helps kick things off, which will now transition into cleaning and refining, Thorpe said.
“Digging into how to deliver this line or emphasize this word to make it a little funnier, I like that starting with summer camp allows the kids to play with things later, we learn learn learn and then play with it,” she said.
Like other school extracurriculars, not all expenses are covered by the district. VAHS shows are also funded by ticket sales, donation, business ads in the playbill from local companies, and student fundraisers.
The student thespians have to engage in side hustles, selling popcorn at Ironman in Verona, or caramel apples at football games. They attended the farmers market recenty with a bedpan to collect donations in, in a wry nod to “Urinetown.”
A student publicity and marketing team goes out to companies in the area and asks for donations.
Shows can cost several thousand dollars, as the community has grown to expect a certain level of excellence from the VAHS theater department productions, Thorpe said.
This past year also incurred some atypical costs, with the opening of the new Performing Arts Center at the new high school. Since the district is trying to maintain two fully-function PACs, the one at the old high school (now Badger Ridge Middle School) maintained many of the pieces of equipment necessary for theatrical productions, new things had to be bought for the new high school.
Though the department aren’t spendthrifts, Thorpe said, with set pieces, props, and costumes repurposed, recycled, and repainted when possible.
While her student actors have to do some fundraising, she said it’s a myth that other extracurriculars like sports are better-funded, and said football players, for instance, also raise money for equipment with fundraisers.
“We are supported,” she said.
She is proud of the educational experience that the department can provided when well-funded.
“I love that students really get to see this is how you do theater — with costume designers and set designers – it’s cool that the kids get to be a part of that,” she said. “The kids are involved in all parts of the show – publicity, helping build sets, hair, makeup, lighting.”
The technical theater camp, held the same days as the rehearsal camp, offered students classes on set building, scenic art, carpentry, props management, safety equipment training, and how to use fly systems. It was led by Lauri Halminiak.
The summer camps are also a fun way for incoming freshman to be welcomed into the high school and make mentors and friends, Cowing said.
The department puts on an autumn musical and spring play annually. Thorpe is the vocal and general music educator for the high school, while Cowing is a freelance director and choreographer for a variety of Madison-area productions. This is Thorpe’s eighth season of VAHS productions, and Cowing’s second.
When selecting the two annual shows, an important factor is choosing a production knowing you have a student who fits the lead.
“If you don’t have a Dolly for ‘Hello, Dolly’ you don’t do it,” Cowing said.
They chose “Urinetown” in part because of its “really great ensemble pieces” where the whole cast gets lots to do on stage.
“For reigniting interest in theater post-pandemic, this was a good fit, and the comedy was fun for these times,” Cowing said.
Last year’s school musical, “Xanadu,” still had students in masks because of COVID-19, but this year the students will be maskless.
The pandemic years in 2020 and 2021 allowed Thorpe to take a step back and rebuild how to put on a show.
“The pandemic was reset in a lot of ways, plus with the new high school building, we’ve been thinking about what traditions to start as theater community, what is important to us, and how we can be better people both in the rehearsal room and out in the community,” Cowing said.
The directors also like producing at least one show a year with darker qualities that make audiences think.
Urinetown is a dark satire, Thorpe said. It features themes of social justice, corporate greed, climate change, police brutality, and corporate monopolies.
During summer camp, the directors and students chatted about the themes.
“Kids need to understand what it’s about, it’s satirical, but the comedy can bring out things we can’t normally talk about,” Thorpe said. “We are just really excited about this show, there are so many relevant things our kids want to talk about, and it’s fun that we can talk about them in a lighthearted manner. You can see the story opening up for them. They’ll come to rehearsal and say, ‘I just saw that in news the other day.’ It’s done in a way that the kids can be heard and seen.”
“It’s amazing it was made 20 years ago and is still so relevant to these times,” Cowing added.
The commentary on climate change hits harder now than it did 20 years ago, actor and co-senior year student leader Eva Perez told the Press. But said the way the show deals with serious matters such as corrupt politicians and corporations makes it relatable and fun and able to be laughed at.
“There is a lot of self-awareness, everyone is in on the joke,” she said.
“Every line can be taken as a bit or a joke to be laughed at,” lead actor and the other co-senior year mentor Daniel Christian added.
Thorpe said while the topics in the production can be difficult, she would never pick a show not appropriate for students or not in keeping with the school district’s philosophies. She said topics discussed in “Urinetown” are just extensions of topics already being discussed in VASD classrooms.
“Don’t let the title scare you off, it’s a fun show, especially for people who love musical theater, because there’s elements from Les Miserables, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Fiddler on the Roof. It’s really fun,” Thorpe said.
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