Monday, August 24, 2009

An Ode To The Red Dragon Players

I will certainly miss being a part of The Red Dragon Players of Austin High School. True, I graduated from Austin High nearly three months ago, but I managed to keep my spirits high by playing Horton the Elephant in the Austin Independent School District's All-City Musical Seussical: The Musical last month, which was directed by Austin High Theatre Director Billy Dragoo, and starred four other Austin High students who I knew very well. So, in a sense, I extended my run as a Red Dragon Player by a few months. But it's all over now.

Here is a rumination I wrote during my junior year of high school on my wonderful years with the best theatre department in the state of Texas.

My fascination with The Red Dragon Players began when I discovered the world outside of my second period Theatre I classroom. Certainly, I was aware that the Preas Theater was more than just a classroom; our ladder-wielding student teacher, Mark Pickell, had built a tremendous set for his production of Marat/Sade right under our feet. But even after I attended productions, such as Marat/Sade and A Christmas Carol, I still didn’t really associate the Preas classroom with the intense acting arena drenched in lighted gels that provided nighttime entertainment for the Austin High masses (back then, I wasn’t even aware of the backstage area – I was shocked to find out that something existed behind that door).

I felt like a bit of an intruder when I stumbled into a small role in Bye, Bye Birdie in the spring of 2006, because I was surrounded by a passionate group of musically-gifted students who were very unfamiliar faces (in fact, it took some genuine convincing before I believed that senior Michael Harrison was, in fact, a high school student). The experience was extraordinary; some people don’t look back on Birdie as the finest of The Red Dragon Players’ musicals, but I remember being proud to be involved in what I considered to be, at the time, a ‘masterpiece.’

Fast-forward to after-school rehearsals for The Red Dragon Revue: Get Wired – I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, mimicking Johnny Cash in a rendition of Folsom Prison Blues, but I sure enjoyed watching and learning from people whose work inspired me in past productions. Who is that fascinating individual donning black sunglasses and exuding coolness? Why, that’s Daniel Howard. And how about that great actor reciting a profanity-laden Shel Silverstein poem as if he were a politician? Keenan Zarling, ladies and gentleman.

Beyond anything, I was astounded to be surrounded with such intelligent people. I can’t think of another organization on campus that has such brilliant and well-read students as this particular department. Later that year during the annual Camp Red Dragon, I would just listen to Howard, Zarling and Zach Gamble riff with each other in musings and conversations which often led nowhere and yet were clever all the same.

My initiation into the theatre department, then, was based on a need to follow in the footsteps of the ‘old-timers,’ as well as grounding myself in an organization that was redeeming and accepting of one’s character flaws.

The next year brought a startling revelation to me, though – I really loved to act. Many people claim that there is an extremely tough balance between keeping up with academics and participating in a play, but I have to admit that working with Mr. Dragoo most likely improved my grades, if anything. Dragoo is easily the most intelligent and fascinating teacher at Austin High, and spending a two-hour rehearsal taking direction from him remains just as beneficial as any two-hour SAT preparatory class (his vocabulary alone demands attention, hence the often-quoted Dragoo-isms). The first production in which he directed me was The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer; I still consider the play as one of my best performances, not only because of my strong desire to play an intense character, but also because Oppenheimer marked the first time I had worked with someone with the Dragoo's presence.

Since that production, I have been delighted to find that Dragoo is not only a master acting coach, but also a terrific friend, a patriarchal presence whose opinion is as highly regarded as that of one’s own father. During Urinetown: The Musical, I was lucky enough to find Dragoo and myself playing bumbling cohorts Officers Lockstock and Barrel, and I was privy to a sort of kinship one expects with fellow students, but not necessarily with instructors. I am not alone in saying that he and Mrs. Dragoo are among the most respected and esteemed adults at Austin High, and certainly their friendship – and direction – is valued endlessly.

Our 2007 UIL One-Act Play, Round and Round the Garden, was as gratifying a theatrical experience as I can remember. The thrill of performing something meaningful and hilarious was exhilarating, but even more exciting were the relationships formed between the six actors and three crewmembers in the process. The joy of Round and Round the Garden didn’t end with the play’s final bow at the Bass Concert Hall on May 5th, 2007; instead, it still remains amongst the veterans at Austin High and those now residing elsewhere. The same joy spilled over into this year’s UIL One-Act Play, …And the Rain Came to Mayfield, and the overlapping companies represent a new generation of Red Dragon Players.

In a sense, those freshman, such as myself, who were once intimidated by the prospect of living up to the old-timers have, essentially, picked up where the old-timers left off. Our lives are now consumed by theater in the best sense possible, and, while I may not boast membership in four different theater classes as my friend Kaylee Nelson does (count ‘em – Theatre III/IV, Musical Theatre, Theater Production, Tech Theatre), I am proud to be a member of the most versatile and brilliant organization on campus.

More than anything, The Red Dragon Players provided me with a sense of identity, ironic given that acting is defined as losing oneself inside a character. Perhaps that explains the terrific performances at Austin High – the department constructs an identity for the actor, so that the actor might spend the rest of his/her career at AHS breaking that identity onstage. What results are honest, naturalistic performances that resemble not so much an act as they do a reality – in a sense, our act is our offstage persona, and we are only truly ourselves when we are onstage.

This, of course, will lead all of us to confusing and unbalanced lifestyles for eternity, but I guess you have to be a little eccentric to be involved with The Red Dragon Players in the first place. I feel gratified to be a part of a group where the theatrical history is as important as the current productions, and where one day, we can all be the legendary old-timers.

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