WHEATLAND – Wheatland High School parent Dixie Mount said that while she was under the risers at the performances of the play “Anastasia, The Musical,” Senior Grace Hanni began to sing and she developed tears in her eyes.
Most of the audience followed suit with tears and chill bumps. That’s what happens when Hanni steps onstage. She becomes larger than life and her characters fill the room. She will be leaving Wheatland High School to graduation and although her performance was literally jaw-dropping, she makes those actors around her rise to another level.
The young actors, some as young as fourth-grade looked like veterans with their confidence and their stage presence and let everyone know in the arena that the future of Wheatland stage plays was very bright.
One underlying fact rises above all others. They acted in an indoor quarter horse arena, with some of the play taking place on a thick, choppy dirt floor. Oh, the ambience was stupendous with live birds chirping along with the music and adding their voices to the quiet soliloquys, the cool night Wyoming air made it seem like the audience was perhaps transported to the heart of Russia and every once in a while you would hear dogs barking or horses neighing in the background.
That couldn’t have been scripted any better.
The smells of holding a play in a quarter horse arena only added an interesting realism to an already epic and bold performance that went forth May 5, 6 and 7. Due to the recent cold weather, the actors didn’t have much experience on the actual stage, but ran through lines and dances on the hardwood floor of the Wyoming Dance Studio.
The kids got into character and onstage and didn’t miss a beat. Whether they were acting from the dirt floor to the balcony that was 15 feet above the ground.
Since the remodel of the Wheatland High School auditorium for the past school year, things like band concerts, performances and plays have had to be creative as to the venue that would house their creative creations.
Perhaps the most bold and creative move to date was not only bringing the challenging musical “Anastasia The Musical” to the high school stage, but also choosing an indoor quarter horse arena as the venue for the performances.
Opening night came to Rafter MB Quarter Horses Arena And Event Center located at 210 Sybille Creek Road in Wheatland which is owned and operated by Myrle and Birgit Ingle. Nobody quite knew what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the best performances of the three-night run. On Friday night the Ingle’s were busy in the kitchen and manning the smoker grills as they prepared a steak dinner for over 50 people before the performance which added the component of a dinner theater to the culture that is Wheatland.
Robin Williams said that a veteran actor can act no matter what the environment and make the audience believe you are someplace else. For the Wheatland Thespian Troupe 605, they made the audience feel as if they were in the turn of the century Russia during the Romanov Revolt.
“That’s really why we love the arena,” said choreographer and costume designer Ton Winter. “It’s so big and expansive. The acoustics are actually wonderful out there and it gives this feeling of grandness because it’s so large. That’s what we’re wanting to get because it’s the grandness of Russia and Paris and all these things thrown in.”
Merlin Hitt, who is responsible for set design created an arena within the arena with arena seating in an environment where the audience feels as if they may actually be sitting in an outdoor square in Petrograd. And with those birds that actually live in the arena, it gave an air of realism of being in the park with birds swooping and chirping. The smell of the tack and the horses only lent another hint of realism as the scents spoke to a time before automated travel.
“It has been a little difficult to rehearse out there,” Winter said. “It’s just been too cold and it’s too dark and not enough light out there right now.”
“What’s fun is that for the Russian bits, we are having the kids down in the dirt, digging in the dirt as in Russia, and then when the scene changes to Paris, they are all up in the balcony,” Winter said. “What we were concerned about is a lot of our actors have allergies to horses and allergens being outside. We’ve been actually telling them to find local honey and start eating that every day.”
For a show like Anastasia, most high schools won’t attempt it simply because the stage area can’t do it justice.
“For a play of this magnitude it needs to feel big,” Winter said. “There’s not a lot of indoor places in Wheatland that have that feeling. We met with Birgit and she showed us the auditorium and she was willing to be a part of our crazy scheme and she’s super excited and she just said, ‘anything for the kids.’”
The director Kalyn Krotz was thrilled with the performances given by her young thespians and as she spoke about opening night, she said, “It was great. From the acting to the people running the arena to the helpers and tech crew, it was a great moment to bring it all to life.”
The main characters in the play are experienced, veteran high school actors, Grace Hanni who played Anya, Kit Winter who played Dimitry and Jeffery Cuevas from Douglas High School who played Vlad.
Cuevas was new to the Wheatland stage, but not to acting and has performed in plays Cinderella where he played the prince, Sound of Music where he played Max Detweiler among many other plays.
“I didn’t expect to get a big part when I came here,” Cuevas said. “I just wanted to participate in another show and I thought it would be pretty fun. I think the biggest challenge was never having acted with any of the kids here. It was getting to know them and getting the cues correct and learning their timing.”
Cuevas is active in student council, the National Honor Society and is on the varsity swim team.
Hanni who is fresh off the Wheatland High School drama club’s play “Working,” has wowed crowds with not only her acting abilities, but she has also been gifted with an incredible singing voice.
When asked how it felt to have the auditorium ripped up for her senior year, Hanni said “It’s terrible. But this is a great place to end my high school career. With this play. At that venue. One of the hardest scenes I’ve done is in this play where I had to scream really loud onstage.
Kit Winter who stole the show in last fall’s performance of “Charley’s Aunt” as he played a college student who was playing a spinster aunt in an English play.
“This was more difficult,” he said. “I am more used to comedy, but I was excited for this challenge and I had really looking forward to this. By opening night I had to figure out a whole new genre of acting that is a bit out of my comfort zone.”
Winter, as usual, killed it with his deadpan humor even in the serious role and when his heart was breaking onstage, the audience could feel it. Some have remarked that if he goes into engineering after college he’s going to miss out being talented beyond his years as an actor, but I had to step in and say, that it would those of us in his audience that would be missing out.
The play, directed by Krotz was inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures by special arrangement with Buena Vista Theatrical. It was adapted from the play by Marcelle Maurette as adapted by Guy Bolton.
The book, Anastasia was written by Terrence McNally, music was written by Stephan Flaherty and the lyrics were written by Lynn Ahrens.
From the director’s note:
“This is a show we’ve been thinking about for two years and our talent lined up perfectly to do it… and then a wonderful thing happened- the auditorium at the high school was granted a much-needed renovation! But where to put on such a large show? A horse arena, of course! From the beginning, Birgit and Myrle Ingle have been amazing and continued to be more than accommodating as we took over their space! I can never thank them enough for their help and support! This arrangement has presented logistical challenges left and right from the lighting to how to keep costumes and spotlights clean and everything in between! There are so many people to thank who made this possible. First and foremost, my most talented co-director Ton Winter. Without her help and skills as a seamstress and choreographer, you would all be watching the cast box-step in prom dresses! She also recruited her very knowledgeable husband, Lincoln, to work with the cast individually and as a group in order to help them sing better than myself and YouTube could accomplish! Lincoln is also the reason we will have front light available so you can see their singing faces. Many, many thanks from myself and the cast! I also would like to thank Mike Adams and Jerrene Owens for their singing expertise and volunteerism! I’d like to thank Merlin and Connor Hitt for the set design and making my crazy ideas become a possibility! Many thanks to Jeff Hanni and Zach Smith for their help and input with sound direction! Thank you to Sheldon Harnish for stepping in at the end and not only covering a role, but also for work setting up the spotlights and helping with set changes! Thank you to Brianna Barrett and Dixie Mount for your help backstage and keeping the show flowing! Thank you to Lenny and Kris Noyce for your extension cords, running a spot light and stepping up wherever we needed a hand! A thousand thanks to the Kiwanis Club as well as Simply Creative for each dollar you helped to raise to make this show possible! Thank you to all our sponsors featured in this program- without your support we could not bring in such large shows and feature so many students. We also could not keep ticket prices in a range to make these shows accessible to more of the public. Thank you to Dance Wyoming for allowing us to rehearse in your space and to Linda Fabian and Josephine Young for teaching our aristocrats to waltz! We have been so very blessed by the community and the response we received for support from finances to costume donations and advertising. In a culture where the value of the arts is often questioned, it’s a testament to this community and it’s value of youth with artistic interests that we received this kind of support! Thank you very much to Kent Smith and Smith Broadcasting for featuring us on the radio and recording an advertisement for us. Your continued support of this program is so appreciated! Thank you to Mark DeLap from the Platte County Record-Times for coming to a rehearsal and featuring these students in a story. It's special for them to be recognized by the community in this way! Special thanks to Community Thrift and Family Fashions for donating costumes for this very large and varied sized cast. Also Mary Skoog who donated the grey silk fabric that was used to make the Tsarina’s ball gown. A heartfelt thank you to our cast and crew and their families. Theatre is a huge commitment not only from the students, but their families as well. They have been wonderful with transportation, change of plans, working on scenes at home, providing food for the cast and even making a cage for a live chicken! Thank you for letting me borrow your children for the past two months. It was so refreshing to see youth who were so willing to work hard and pour themselves into this project! It was truly a joy to work with them! Thank you to the administration at both the Wheatland High School and Wheatland Middle School for your support. I very much appreciate the trust it takes to approve and support pitches like a musical in the dirt! Thank you also for the ability to involve the homeschooled community and bring these students together. It’s been amazing to see them work together! Thank you to the front office staff at the High School for navigating charges, receipts and boxes of shoes! You ladies are awesome! I want to thank my own family. My parents took the time to come out here from Nebraska to help with construction- on my house and the set! My kids got recruited right away to be in the cast and it’s been fun to watch them learn and grow. My amazing husband kept things going at home and responded with such grace to every last-minute call and text message before rehearsals! Without their support, love, understanding and work I could not commit to these students. I love you all! And finally, thank you to you- the audience. You’re the reason we do it. Thank you for coming out here to support this program and these students. It means everything.”