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Arts & Life

Shut Off From The Stage, A South Kansas City Theater Class Pivots To Podcasts

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Anne Kniggendorf
/
KCUR 89.3
Drama teacher Grahm Mahanna created a podcast so that students like Eleanor Peoples could perform, even if they weren't at school.

Grahm Mahanna was determined to find a way for his Center High School students to perform even if they were remote learners.

In the spring of her junior year at Center High School in south Kansas City, Eleanor Peoples finally got the lead in a play. She’d been in the theater department for three years, and she was really excited.

By now, most people can guess what happened next: A global pandemic not only forced Peoples’ school year to a halt, but also stamped out the spring show she’d waited so long to star in.

“So, it never happened, but it was nice to know I had what it took to get the lead anyway,” Peoples says. She’s serene about it a year later.

But her drama teacher, Grahm Mahanna, fixated on his students’ disappointment all through the summer of 2020. He was determined to find a way for them to perform—in case the 2020-2021 school year was also a bust for his department.

He decided to try something he’d already been wondering about: podcasts. A podcast would allow students to perform, whether they were learning remotely or in the classroom, and he’d stitch the performances together into a show.

In the fall, Mahanna introduced members of the Players 58 theater club—named for the school district—to radio shows of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Club members sorted through scripts of shows and landed on one from 1945 called Beware of Tomorrow. It is about a killer robot.

Because that show was well received, Mahanna decided to keep pushing. In January, as the students planned another show, he encouraged them to think creatively.

“The cool thing about right now is because this is so unprecedented, there’s not really any rules," Mahanna says. "And because there’s no rules, that’s really exciting because that lets us do things we’ve never been able to do.”

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Ariana Hernandez
A fall 2019 performance of "Charlie Brown" was the last time members of Players 58 were photographed together.

He had students listen to PRX’s The Moth Radio Hour, which features people's true stories. They decided to try writing short scripts for themselves about similar lived experiences.

Students turned in pieces about family dynamics, race relations and mental health.

“They turned in some work that was really mind-blowing,” Mahanna says. “It was so introspective and deep and just kind of caught me off guard a little bit.”

He liked the students’ work so much that he invited the entire student body to participate. The Black Student Union was already working on pieces for a poetry slam, so he specifically solicited work from members.

One of those students was rising senior Marques Griffith, also a member of Players 58. He wrote and performed a monologue called “For Pops” using the writing prompt: “I am not your _____.”

In this case, that blank was “son.”

Griffith wrote about the seven years since the man he thought of as his father has been gone.

Parts of the monologue are funny: the man who could dance better than Michael Jackson and demonstrated potentially pants-ripping martial arts moves. He laid a strong foundation for Griffith’s future.

It ends: “I’m grasping at the sound of your voice, only remembering the cold granite placed on top. How could I not remember everything you’ve done for me? How could I forget the face of my favorite super-hero? I am not your son.”

Mahanna says that teachers who’ve listened to the podcast call it heartwarming.

They’ve told him they’re “pleasantly surprised to see that level of vulnerability, especially when we’re so disconnected with Zoom and Teams, and we can’t have that interaction that we normally would have.”

Peoples performed a script that a classmate submitted anonymously called “I’m Your Little Blue Flower.”

She recorded her performance alone in her room on her cell phone.

“That one was really close to heart for the person who wrote it,” Peoples says. “It’s about watching a friend go through depression and a suicide attempt, so it was really difficult for them to sit there and be supportive of them.”

The friend character Peoples played struggles with her own limitations and wishes she could do more.

Peoples is quick to point out that acting for a cell phone and acting in an auditorium are not the same thing.

“It’s way different to perform in front of other people, because you have a lot more nervous energy that you can pull from, and I didn’t have that, I was just sitting by myself,” she says.

Still, she loved her high school drama experience and plans to study technical theater and design at Avila University in the fall.

Mahanna says he really hopes this was the only time he has to find alternative ways for his students to learn the craft of acting. But, in some ways, he’s glad that they all got to try something different.

“I have never been prouder of a show that we’ve done,” Mahanna says. “There was nothing to compare it to, and they exceeded all of my expectations.”

The Players 58 Radio Hour is available on all podcast services.

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