PHS Drama Department Builds Confidence, Creativity and Connections
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Years ago, Todd Dillon was a backstage parent when his daughter was involved in theater at Plainfield High School (PHS). After she graduated, Dillon, a seasoned actor himself, stepped up his volunteer hours. In 2016 he became the assistant director, then later the artistic director for the PHS drama department. Two years later Emily Astroski joined the theater team when she became the tech director and Dillon’s assistant.
“It’s been a great fit as Emily likes the technical and backstage stuff, and I like to direct,” says Dillon, who is also the worship minister at Plainfield Christian Church. Although he’s spent most of his life performing on stage in civic theater productions, directing has become his passion.
“When you’re playing a role you have a lot of creative control over that part, but when you’re a director you have creative juices flowing through every aspect of the show,” Dillon says. “Directing has been so fulfilling because I get to sit back and see a story come to life on stage, knowing that I had a voice in every part of it.”
Astroski also began acting at a young age, and continued through high school and college.
“It sounds so cliché, but acting helped me so much growing up in those super turbulent teenage years,” she says. She, too, appreciates the creative aspect of theater. She loves reading a script that calls for some sort of whimsical object and then brainstorming with her students on how to make it.
“Figuring it out involves everyday problem-solving skills,” Astroski says. “When they experience success after numerous failures, that’s exciting. To see what’s in your mind’s eye come to life is also exciting.”
Both Dillon and Astroski enjoy watching students grow as they practice problem solving, collaboration and perseverance.
“Our costume crew came in and none of them knew how to sew, but as they learned, they were so excited for one another,” Astroski says. “Someone would get a stitch, hold it up, and everyone would applaud. Theater builds those small skills, but it also builds friendships and camaraderie.”
For each production, Astroski works with the entire backstage team, which includes a number of student crews for prop, set, lighting, sound, costume and more. Each is led by a student, usually an upperclassman. Reagan Bradley graduates this year after having been the stage manager for every PHS show since her freshman year.
“When I first met Reagan she wanted to be an air traffic controller, which requires roughly the same skills as a stage manager,” Astroski says with a chuckle. “You have to think fast and problem solve.”
Bradley plans to study stage management in college.
“The drama department has given me such a great opportunity to learn about the technical aspect of theater, but also a countless amount of life lessons like treating people with the utmost respect,” Bradley says.
When Dillon first selects a show to put on, he calls it “his show.” Once he and Astroski hold auditions, it becomes “our show” – theirs along with the students. By opening night, it’s “their show.” It really is a team effort.
“Theater and sports are similar,” Astroski says. “In both, you have a team in which everyone plays their part and has their responsibility. In theater, wins and losses look different, but it’s that collective community that we build, and I think especially for young adults, having that collective experience is so important.”
She also points to the cathartic nature of theater.
“It’s important, especially for young adults, to know that it’s OK to collectively feel emotions and not be afraid of them,” Astroski says. “They learn to embrace those emotions to create something that’s not only going to impact them, but also so many others.”
Dillon appreciates how theater teaches empathy.
“In this day and age we need to learn empathy and how to listen to one another,” he says. “Listening to characters who are speaking stories that are different from our own helps us learn how to relate to and respect one another.”
A new part of PHS’s theater program is the Night of Scenes, which they did for the first time last year. The drama club works with the creative writing club to write short scenes based around a theme. The drama club holds auditions, and student directors and student costumers put on the show. Being involved in a big stage production can be intimidating, and the program provides a way for students to see what theater is like.
“Last year 40 students, from freshmen to seniors, were involved, and only four of them had been involved in theater in some way previously,” Astroski says. “Everyone else was brand new.”
Once they’ve set foot in the theater community, many students elect not to leave. That’s pretty cool given that students often come from different social groups.
“They all interact so well with each other for the most part,” says Dillon, who enjoys seeing students become one another’s cheerleaders. “It’s fun to see them get outside of themselves and learn to be kinder. For instance, they’ll encourage their peers after an audition. We catch them doing good things. It’s beautiful to see.”
Ava Angle, a senior who played Mary in “Mary Poppins” last fall, says theater has helped her confidence flourish.
“As a freshman I was constantly comparing myself to other people and doubting my own abilities, but our drama department really emphasizes that everyone brings their own unique strengths to the table,” Angle says. “I no longer find myself comparing and competing with my peers, but rather working together.”
Senior Ethan Hood’s confidence has also grown due to theater.
“Public speaking has become a breeze, and I’m able to push myself to do things that others may be too scared or embarrassed to do,” says Hood, who also appreciates the fun of briefly escaping reality by playing a character. “No matter what external circumstances you may face, acting allows you to step into the shoes of someone who doesn’t have those same problems.”
Dillon notes that students take that confidence to other parts of their life as well, whether that’s in academic performance, job searching, or trying something new.
Past PHS productions include Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “The Addams Family,” “12 Incompetent Jurors,” “Clue,” “The Matchmaker” and more.
This spring they will perform “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.”
“The title is a misnomer because it’s not a musical,” Dillon says. “It’s very campy and over the top. It should be a lot of fun.”
The show runs at 7 p.m. on April 27, 28 and 29. Purchase tickets online or at the box office.