Franklin High School has a rich history of performing arts. From Shakespeare to Fosse, FHS has had exciting repertoire of performances. With classic plays like As You Like It and A Stolen Prince,and slightly more modern shows like Anything Goes and Bye Bye Birdie, high-quality theater productions have graced Franklin’s auditorium stage almost every year in the school’s over a hundred years of operation. School theater departments are constantly evolving places, and always have room for improvement. Sure, it’s nice to have a brand-new auditorium and all the accoutrements that come with that, but the thing that truly makes a production great is the support and guidance from good theater directors.
Portia Hall has been teaching at Franklin since 1998, and started her theater career as a choreographer in the 2001 production of Bye Bye Birdie. Hall has directed Little Shop of Horrors, Grease, Oklahoma,and Anything Goes. She’s done choreography for Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Footloose,and Chicago. The theater director at the time had left, which began a period of time where Franklin was void of an official theater staff. For several years after that, Franklin had to hire out in order to have any productions at all. It got to the point where the theater department was so out of use that people began to vandalize the auditorium. Hall even had some seniors approach her and ask her to direct, saying she was the only one with any theater experience. This was during the 2006-2007 school year. Hall had her debut show as a director for Little Shop of Horrors,with only 14 people in the cast. “Every night at the performance, I would come out on stage and say ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, we need a drama teacher.’” The next year, Franklin hired a drama teacher, but soon after she got hurt and was out for the rest of the theater season. “It was like a curse,” says Hall. With six weeks before the opening of Grease, Hall stepped in as director to finish the show. She then directed Oklahoma, and soon after hiring a new drama teacher, they started the new theater cycle. The drama teacher at that time wasn’t able to do the show, and Josh Forsythe began production of his first musical.
Josh Forsythe has been with the Franklin High School theater department for eight years, starting with a musical called Oliver. He took on the role as theater director for the showbefore he was even the official theater teacher at Franklin, but the year following was offered the job. “I had a lot of musical theater experience as a performer,” says Forsythe. “I had directed several plays, but I had never directed a musical and the first musical I had ever directed was here at Franklin.” He had been in several musical productions as an actor and singer. The only reason Forsythe is the theater teacher today is because the temporary theater director they had wasn’t up for doing the musical. His being at Franklin at all was a stroke of luck.
Forsythe has been an influential part of FHS theater over the past eight years. He directed Oliver in 2011, the next years directing Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Footloose, Chicago, Annie, all the way up to last school year doing technical directing for Anything Goes (theater directed by fellow Franklin teacher Portia Hall), and resuming directing with Bye Bye Birdie this spring.
Forsythe has done some difficult shows in his career, but the two that take the cake for most challenging shows are The Wizard of Oz and Chicago. The Wizard of Oz was the most difficult technically because of the intricate special effects that were needed to make the show happen. “It was a very challenging show to do in the old theater,” says Forsythe. At the time the show was being put on, Franklin had not yet had its remodel, so the theater wasn’t equipped for a production as complicated as that. It was missing trap systems, an orchestra pit, and other details that would’ve made the special effects pop. “That one was the most challenging technically; maybe ten years from now I’ll do it again and it will be a lot easier.” The most trying show for Forsythe musically was Chicago. It is a highly stylized show that relies on a very specific tone to be carried out through the musical, he says. “It was directed and choreographed by a guy named Bob Fosse, and it has a very specific aesthetic that takes a lot of time to get down. It has a specific style of choreography, writing and directing that if you don’t do correctly, everyone kinda notices that it doesn’t look good.” Though both of these productions were highly complicated for Forsythe, he enjoyed the process of both productions, The Wizard of Oz being his favorite. Musicals don’t come without a large time commitment, not only for the cast and crew, but also for the directors. “During the musicals, I’m here [at Franklin] from 7:00am until 7:00pm, Monday-Friday, and every Saturday from 9:00am until 5:00pm.” Directing a musical is a lot of work, sometimes adding up to about sixty or seventy hours a week at the school.
Not every musical gets to grace the Franklin stage. Musicals have to fit a specific criteria. Cast size is a big part of choosing what show to do, making sure that there are enough characters that would give opportunities to at least 20 students, whether a lead, support, or chorus members. “I want there to be opportunities for people that are more experienced to play lead characters and support characters, and opportunities for newer people to be in group songs and dances, or chorus.” Secondly, he likes to bounce around eras and different types of stories. Varying storylines and time periods is what makes a theater department so diverse and colorful. Recently, Franklin has done a lot of classics, so switching it up to something contemporary is on the agenda. A few more things that are considered when picking a show are what the target audience is, what the theater department wants to showcase, and if the show has been done at the school in the past ten years.
Jillian Dixon (11) has been in three Franklin musical theater productions. She was in the ensemble in Annie and Anything Goes, and played Nancy in Bye Bye Birdie. Dixon says that Forsythe is such a supportive director, saying that he’s just the right amount of encouraging. “He really pushes you to to be the best you can be without forcing a lot of demands and expectations onto you,” says Dixon. A director has to be patient and understanding, and Forsythe is just that. “He’s fully supportive throughout the entire process, which includes making a bunch of mistakes. His support and compassion make the stress of the musical process worth it.”
There were some issues involving maintaining consistency within the Franklin theater programs. In the early 2000s, the cohesion within the theater system was weakening. With difficulties finding music, choir, dance and theater teachers, the department was in a state of disarray. As of the past two years, there has been some growth and consistency in the theater, without having to start from scratch every year. With a stable staff, the theater department has been able to grow and become great over the past few musicals. Hall feels okay to take maternity leave next year, feeling like it’s fine to step out and that the current staff has it covered. “With a program that’s self-sustaining and has a lot of support, it feels like they can accomplish whatever they want.” Musicals take so much effort and time to put on, especially from directors. This role takes stamina, patience and a big heart for students. Forsythe and Hall have all of those things and then some, providing guidance and support for Franklin actors for years.