Theater Lab Launches First Student Performance with Speech and Debate

Theater Lab participants rehearse in the dance studio. Photo by Hercules Zhang.

The GDS Theater Lab gave its first ever student performances from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in the dance studio. The group, which was made up of three students and dance and acting teacher Maria Watson, put on a production of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate.

The Theater Lab was created by high school performing arts department chair Jason Strunk and Watson. Watson is the director of the plays the Theater Lab puts on, and Strunk is the producer. They plan on putting on the Theater Lab’s second show in the spring.

Last June, the Theater Lab presented a staging by former GDS teacher Jim Mahady of Liza and Barbra and Bette! Oh My! The play did not feature any students, but Watson said it served as a trial run to see if the dance studio worked as a space to put on shows for the Theater Lab.

Watson and Strunk explained that they founded the program because they wanted an opportunity where students could perform smaller plays, unlike the fall shows and spring musicals, which are big productions so that a lot of students can participate.

Part of the reason Watson and Strunk wanted to do small shows was to feature diverse casts and playwrights, something that they believe is difficult to do with fall show and spring musical selections. Watson told the Bit that because it’s hard to find productions with large casts in general, it’s especially hard to find diverse ones. She said that shows with a smaller cast, like those of the Theater Lab, are easier to find, so there are more diverse options to choose from. 

“I don’t think we do enough plays that represent the entire student body at GDS, which is getting more and more diverse as time goes on,” she said.

Speech and Debate was written by Stephen Karam, who is Lebanese American, and centered around three students who feel suppressed by the adults around them. The students were played by sophomores Aymaan Enayetullah and Henry Cohen and junior Olivia Brown. Cohen and Brown also performed in The Odyssey, this year’s fall show, and Enayetullah was a part of the makeup crew.

Though all three members of the Theater Lab participated in The Odyssey, Strunk hopes that the success of Speech and Debate will lead people who don’t participate in the larger GDS  shows to join. “The more points of access to the arts we can provide our students, the more robust our program will be, the more robust our students will be, and the more well rounded our students are going to be,” Strunk said.

Watson and performing arts teacher Laura Rosberg, who directs the fall show, worked together to make sure students could perform in both. Theater Lab actors were excused from the first part of The Odyssey’s rehearsals and went to the second part after the Theater Lab rehearsal was over. The Theater Lab’s rehearsals lasted for one hour every weekday. 

Cohen did not find balancing his commitment to the fall show and to the Theater Lab challenging. “Sometimes it was stressful, but overall it was fine,” he said.

Cohen also enjoyed the smaller cast of the Theater Lab. “The Odyssey has such a large cast; we weren’t really able to focus on character work,” he said. “But in Speech and Debate, we were able to do that.”

Unlike the fall and spring shows, Speech and Debate was not performed in the black box; the shows instead took place in the dance studio. Senior Lucy Mezey, who went to the opening night of Speech and Debate, said she enjoyed the location. “The intimate setting of the dance studio actually played to the strengths of the show,” she said. “I thought that being right there with them made me feel like I was in high school with them, and it really took me through the emotional highs and lows.”

Watson said the show’s audience numbers increased with each performance and estimated that 50 people came to the final show. Beforehand, she was not sure how many people would show up, but she was happy with the turnout. “I knew the product was good; I knew the actors were good. But with a new thing, you just don’t know,” she said.

After the success of Speech and Debate, Watson sees the future of the Theater Lab potentially evolving into more than two shows a year and also hopes to bring in guest playwrights and companies to speak and perform. “It’s really wide open what we can do,” Watson said.