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Wauwatosa East thespians take 'Spitfire' approach to performing

Nov. 14, 2012

To Wauwatosa East students, "The Spitfire Grill" isn't a high school play. It's a professional endeavor to take pride in.

The theatrical presentation by the Tosa East Players, which opened Nov. 9 and will continue at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 17, is based on an off-Broadway musical created by Milwaukee natives James Valcq and Fred Alley. The musical's theme is that of redemption, following a young woman whose efforts to begin a new life revitalize a rural Wisconsin town.

The students involved in the play have to work in the confines of the Spitfire Grill itself, limiting their creativity to a minimalistic set. Although the show is lacking the extravagance of other plays, it isn't stopping the students from pushing the limits of their imagination.

To say the students put a lot of work in the play would barely scratch the surface. (See sidebar.)

However, while the work put into the show is significant, the students don't see it as a chore. Many see the work as a way to be respected by their peers and still others find solace in the company of the theater department.

"It's really awesome to take part in these productions where no one else in this school will treat you like an adult," said Max Walker, sound technician for the play. "Here there is a lot of respect and everyone really gives it their all because of that."

Training the next generation of theater students is a main task for many departments. A lot of the work done comes from freshmen, completely new to the theater experience.

"It's definitely been a stressful show and I have faith that it will be totally and completely worth it," said Maddie Sweitzer, head of the prop department. "I'm so proud of my crew even if they don't know it. A lot of them are newbies and they've done it really well and have taken me when I'm grumpy, so I really appreciate that as well."

And there's something to be said for the theater experience overall.

"Coming to the theater provides a sort of escape and not in the sense that you're running from problems. In some cases, you're running to problems," said Jonah Robinson, stage manager. "Whether it's a stress reliever after sitting in seven hours of classes or just a way to see people you genuinely enjoy being around most of the time, it provides an opportunity to get a change of pace and be somewhere that you might not necessarily be with yourself."

The crew behind the grill

Jonah Robinson, stage manager

Robinson and his crew regularly started work on the set as soon as school lets out at 3:30 p.m. and spent many nights working until 9:30 p.m. They created a light show for the backdrop of the grill and programmed it into a computer. The lights are projected through a series of screens and filters to set the mood for each act in the play.

Ian Reid, head of the paint department

The Spitfire Grill's set isn't real wood grain, but due to Reid's brushwork, it looks like genuine. He took a seminar at Cobalt Studios in White Lake, N.Y., one of the major scenic art studios in the U.S., this summer and has applied what he learned there to give the set a realistic finish. He researched the region and time period to give an extra touch of authenticity to the show.

Maddie Sweitzer, head of the Prop Department

Sweitzer used her crew and ingenuity to find and use the props in the show. The musical has been very demanding, calling for real food, a real ax and a real tree stump. Sweitzer had her stepfather, who is a chef, cook the Spitfire Grill's fare for each show. As for the ax, one of her crew members found one on the side of the road. None of the props in the show have been rented.

Max Walker, sound technician

Walker has a series of new tools to work with. The school recently purchased a wireless sound system for the theater department. Walker's nose has been in manuals ever since he learned about the new system and he feels confident in the extra level of control the system has given him.

Hailey Rakowiecki, head of costumes department

Rakowiecki was one of the first students to serve as a summer intern at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She, much like Reid, has taken what she learned and applied it to this production. The play has multiple costume changes, calling for her to source extra vintage clothing from the department. She leads a group of mainly freshmen, which calls for her to not only prepare for the show but teach those under her at the same time. Some of the costumes for the show have been donated from Rakowiecki's personal wardrobe.

Katie Piel, stage director

"The Spitfire Grill" is spearheaded by emotion from actors. Piel has been working with her crew to draw emotion since the beginning of October. She has been constantly working on lines and blocking, spending extra time with the actors to prepare for the show.

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