VHS actors perform on-island, will head to China

Four Vashon High School theater students will spend Thanksgiving in China performing at a youth theater festival, but first they need to raise the money to get there.

This weekend and next, the students, joined by four other high school thespians, will perform a double bill of plays that explore the themes of life, death, eternity and the afterlife. Proceeds from ticket sales will go toward airfare and visa costs for the travelling students and staff. The Chinese government is covering all other costs once the group arrives in the country. Vashon High School theater arts teacher and director Stephen Floyd said about half of the money needed has been raised so far.

“We’re pretty close to raising enough for the students, but we still have to cover my trip and my substitute teacher,” Floyd said. “We need about $600 or $700 just for a sub for the five days.”

The first of the two plays being performed on-island is called “Sophie” and is the show Vashon High School (VHS) seniors Alivia Jones and Emma Rose DeSantis will perform in China accompanied by sophomore technicians Joel Wiegner (stage manager) and Gillian Kirkpatrick (lighting/sound technician). It is based on the true story of Sophie Large, a 19-year-old woman from the United Kingdom who was killed in a car crash on her way to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to direct a play in 1998. After her death, her parents created an organization — Sophie’s Silver Lining Fund — to award scholarships to high school students interested in pursuing singing and acting. To raise money for the organization, her parents had Large’s journals, which she kept for most her life, turned into a book called “Sophie’s Log,” which was then adapted into a play by Olympia, Washington, playwright Bryan Willis in 2001. Proceeds from the book and play sales go toward supporting the fund.

“Sophie” has only two characters: 19-year-old Sophie on the day of her crash, played by Jones, and a younger Sophie played by DeSantis. The play focuses on the interactions between the two as they help each other in the wake of the crash.

“The older Sophie gives the younger one advice, and the younger Sophie helps the older one move on from this tragedy,” Floyd explained. “It’s a sweet play. Some of it is quirky and cute as you would expect from it being written from the journals of a teenage girl, but some of it is moving and profound and beyond her years.”

The second play that will accompany “Sophie” in the on-island fundraiser performances is VHS senior Katherine Lande’s “The Waiting Room.” The play explores some of the same themes as “Sophie,” such as death and the afterlife, and features an all-student cast of three characters: Lande as a priest, Wiegner as a gangster and Alex Guthery (first weekend) or Lucy Rogers (second weekend) as the third character. Floyd explained the play as a more humorous take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist “No Exit.” It centers on the three characters who have all died and are waiting to see what happens next.

“There’s a priest, a gangster and a third character killed in an accident who doesn’t know where they are. The priest and the gangster have been there a while,” Floyd said. “One of the three is called out of the ‘waiting room’ at the end. It’s a humorous play with a thoughtful ending point where the author’s (Lande) individual voice and perspective comes through strong and clear.”

Floyd is co-directing the plays with Charlotte Tiencken, a director and producer who has worked at Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre and Seattle Public Theater. The China connection came through her as she has directed plays for multiple Chinese theater festivals throughout the years. Her first trip was in 2011 to attend a festival in Xiamen. While there, she became friends with the translator and guide Wang Ling, provided to her by the Chinese Theater Association — whose purpose is to promote cultural exchange (plays performed at these festivals still have to be pre-approved by the Chinese government censors). She returned to China last year to direct “Romeo and Juliet” in Chinese.

“It was an interesting experience,” she said. “I didn’t speak Chinese and none of the actors spoke English.”

This spring, Ling emailed and asked if she knew of any local groups that would be willing to perform a play directed by her at the same young people’s (ages 18 to 24)theater festival during the month of November.

“I contacted Stephen (Floyd). He said he’d love to and we jumped on it,” Tiencken said. “It’s a great opportunity for these kids.”

Tiencken said there are only three non-Chinese theater groups attending the festival in Shenzhen. The Vashon group is the only one from the U.S and may be the only Westerners. She believes the trip will allow the “young and impressionable” VHS actors and technicians to get a different perspective and build relationships across oceans.

“It’s really important for Americans who think they know how China is to go and really see it first-hand,” she said. “It’s very Westernized, and the people are so open and wanting to learn more about you. To make the trip knowing you have to pick and choose (plays and have them pre-approved) is OK because, for me, it’s more important to build relationships. That’s how I can make a difference.”

As for the decision to choose “Sophie” to perform, finding a play with a small cast and minimal sets was important logistically, but beyond that, Tiencken had experience with the play and believed it “fit right in to the whole idea of the festival.”

The trip was approved by the Vashon Island School District board during its meeting on Sept. 14, and at the time, board chair Steve Ellison called the experience “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

The four VHS students, Floyd, Tiencken, “Sophie” playwright Willis and island videographer Michael Monteleone will board a flight to China Monday, Nov. 20. They will perform in Shenzhen on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 25 and 26, and return home Tuesday, Nov. 28.

“I believe in the power of theater and other arts to transcend barriers of language and culture that separate us from one another, and am very excited to share that profound aspect of our journey with the students,” Floyd said.

Double bill fundraiser shows

Vashon High School thespians will perform four showings of “Sophie” and “The Waiting Room” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 11 and 12, and next Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 and 18, at the Vashon High School theater. There will also be a silent auction during intermission on Nov. 18.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and are available at Vashon Bookshop, the VHS office and at the door. Proceeds from ticket sales and the auction will go toward the “Sophie” cast and crew’s trip to China to perform the play at a festival there.