Appleton North High School Theater Program
by Judy Hebbe
Ron Parker proved that sports rivalries don’t stop students from working together in theater programs.
“Theater is so inclusive. There are no cliques or groups among students who participate in theater programs,” said the Appleton North High School theater program director. “They all come together to work. Every kid matters.”
Parker came to North 23 years ago at the urging of retiring Roger Danielson. He had three conditions: he would involve more kids in theater; he would double cast plays and alternate performances; and that he would have a summer Shakespeare program involving all three Appleton public high schools. Students would work together on one of The Bard’s plays.
The first two conditions were readily accepted by North’s administration, but they had doubts on the third. They couldn’t imagine students who were sports rivals working together. Parker proved them wrong. Today he attracts students from throughout the Fox Cities to Summer Shakespeare through the summer school consortium.
“It’s good stuff.” Parker said. “The students find it something larger than themselves and defy the charge that they don’t have the life experience or skills to do Shakespeare. After all, during Shakespeare’s time, it was teenage boys who played the parts of women.”
Auditions are held in December for their annual March musical – this year, it’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.” It includes a tenth of the student body whether on stage, in the orchestra or on the crew. “Matilda,” the first show of 2020, was performed for students and then shut down as schools closed for COVID-19.
“I had to call everyone together and tell them we could not perform,” Parker said. “We all cried not knowing when it would be performed. We left the set up for the rest of the school year and the summer until the rented stuff had to go back.”
North’s May plays frequently feature the work of playwright Mary Zimmerman, a Northwestern University professor. Parker invited her to North’s production of her play, “Argonautika,” and never expected her to accept. She not only attended, but held a conversation with the audience and met with students.
“It was a great experience for the kids to meet with an actual playwright – just to be in the same room with someone whose plays are being produced and is recognized all over the country.”
Theater is available at North throughout the school year. A one-act competitive play is performed at district and sectional levels before state competition at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Theatre Festival. North has won the championship Critic’s Choice Award each year, bringing statewide attention to the school.
The Drama Club presents a haunted house, which approximately 100 kids build in five days. When they started 22 years ago, it was the “only game in town,” Parker said.
An improv comedy group of eight to 10 students attract hundreds to their productions. They also perform several private gigs.
In spring, students perform a play dealing with a social issue affecting students, such as drunken driving, homelessness, grief or mental illness. They’ve presented establishment plays and student-created shows.
The students also hold Drama Days, which are one-day camps that teach younger kids about theater.
“I love seeing kids do well,” Parker said.
And he has certainly met his first condition.