High school student-run Grab Bag Theater builds leaders and community
Besides being home to Facebook and quiet suburban streets, Menlo Park’s lesser-known claim to fame is Grab Bag Theater, one of the only entirely high school student-run theater groups in the country. Grab Bag puts on a play, musical, and a Winter Arts Festival annually, as well as open mic nights throughout the year. The group is open to students across the Peninsula, but the majority of participants are Menlo-Atherton High School students.
Grab Bag’s next show is the musical The Boyfriend, a spoof of a 1920s comedy that centers on the efforts of English school girls in the French Riviera to get boyfriends. Shows will be on May 12, 13, 19, and 20 at 7:00 pm with a matinee on the 20 at 1:00:: pm, at the Veterans Memorial Senior Center in Redwood City.
The first show Grab Bag was Hairspray in 2011, led by a group of M-A students who initially did not intend to create a lasting theater group. “[They were] looking for more opportunities to be involved in the leadership side of theater,” senior Abby Howell, the current executive director, explained. “At the end of it, they liked it so much that they set up this whole structure.”
This structure Howell referenced consists of an executive board and a junior board, which are both elected annually. In addition to running for the position, students must also interview to be on either board. “On the executive board we have specific positions that people are assigned to,” explained Howell.
Besides the executive director, the executive board includes an artistic director, one or two development directors, a financial director, and a secretary. “Everyone on the executive board is involved in all the decision-making processes,” Howell added.
Junior Kelley McCutcheon is a co-development director this year with junior Zoe Schacter-Brodie. “We manage the junior board… [and are] also in charge of community outreach,” McCutcheon explained.
Sophomore Peter Vitale is a member of this year’s junior board. “In junior board we organize… all the open mic nights, [and] the winter arts festival,” he said.
This includes securing the venue, making playbills, and sometimes bringing snacks. Through responsibilities like these, students are able to learn leadership and management skills they might not get to experience in companies with adults.
In addition, the process of putting on a show helps students develop artistic skills like directing, choreographing, or technical directing. “It’s just a really unique thing,” McCutcheon remarked. “Like how many high school sophomores or juniors do you know that have gotten the chance to vocal direct two full-length musicals?”
Furthermore, Grab Bag’s size ensures that students get more stage time, a louder voice in planning and shaping productions, and are able to watch and learn from the peers alongside them. “It’s more of a collaborative experience than doing theater with a professional director or something like that,” Howell commented. “Everyone’s kind of learning from each other.”
Moreover, Grab Bag is a niche community that gives members a sense of belonging from the moment they join. Howell, Vitale, and McCutcheon all joined freshman year, as do most members. “When I was in eighth grade I was really really nervous obviously to come to high school… but theater is such a community that I’ve never felt that way ever,” McCutcheon reflected.
Howell noted this environment of acceptance as well: “At Grab Bag it’s kind of easier for anyone to join of any experience level, and it’s a really great way to learn how to perform and be more comfortable with yourself.”
However, being completely student run also has its challenges. “Just getting people to realize that we are a legitimate company and that we put on full-length shows [is hard],” McCutcheon commented.
This lack of legitimacy can be a problem in terms of getting funds and resources, securing musical rights to shows, which requires an adult representative, and availability of rehearsal space, which can fluctuate since the company borrows space from various local churches and community centers. Because Grab Bag has now been a fixture in the local theater scene for almost six years, some of these problems have been assuaged. Astute social media use and coordination with the M-A drama department have also helped the company establish themselves.
Ultimately, the obstacles of being entirely student-run are outweighed by the sense of ownership and happiness produced by creating a show independent of any adult supervision. “By the end, everyone is just really proud… because everyone has contributed so much, and it really feels like our show,” Howell affirmed.
Photo by Abby Howell
This is an excerpted version of an article that appeared on M-A Chronicle; used with permission