The Show Must Go On: Walls Theater Faces Significant Challenges
The theater department staged Romeo & Juliet in the Commons / Via @swwhsofficial
In some ways, Walls has a typical high school theater program. Like many schools across the country, Walls’ theater department typically mounts two full scale productions per year; a play in the winter (often Shakespeare), and a musical in the spring.
Unlike many other schools, however, Walls doesn’t have a theater to perform shows in. The play is typically performed in the Commons at Walls, while the musical has been staged in borrowed spaces, such as university theaters and at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens. Most recently, Cinderella was performed at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts. Yet, the theater department at Walls wasn’t always so successful.
Christopher Alberts, music teacher and chair of the performing arts department at Walls, has been involved in Walls theater for all of his fifteen-year tenure at the school. He noted that when he arrived at Walls, “the theater scene was nonexistent.”
At a school where space and resources are limited, performance and rehearsal space has always been a struggle to obtain.
“I have always used room 311 and the Commons to rehearse. [For] the musical we use room 111” said drama teacher and Walls theater director Lea Zaslavsky. These rooms though, are cluttered with furniture and much smaller than a real stage. Also, classrooms must be maintained in their current condition which prevents them from being used as rehearsal rooms which accommodate set pieces and taping out spaces for certain sections of the stage, etc.
On top of that, with the volatile schedule of club and faculty meetings at Walls, Ms. Z noted that it is often difficult to find available space for after school rehearsals. “This limitation hinders the growth and potential of the performing arts department,” she said.
Ms. Z wishes that Walls would dedicate “a theater space or an actual classroom” to rehearsals and performances. Finding a dedicated space for theater “aligns with the broader objective of providing a platform for the artistic expression of our talented students,” said Mr. Alberts. A dedicated theater space would be available to “facilitate concerts, recitals, dance performances, plays, and musicals.”
Another challenge currently being faced by the theater department is low participation. With such limited resources, it is understandably difficult to attract swaths of students to get involved in Walls theater. Georgia Murphy (‘26), the department’s student costume design head, said that student interest has been a particularly large issue this year because last year’s graduating class made up such a large portion of the students involved in the cast and crew.
Though interest today may be diminishing, Ms. Z noted that there was a time when it was the exact opposite.
When she, Mr. Alberts, and Mr. Willoughby began working together five years ago to expand the range of the Walls theater department; she “had many students who were dying to do shows.”
One Walls alumna, Becca Grace (‘21) noted that despite the restrictive rehearsal and performance spaces, she found the program so impactful that it led her to pursue acting beyond high school.
Over the last five years, the HSA has allocated the Walls theater department an average of $15,000 to split between use on concerts, the winter play, and spring musical.
With space at UDC already costing thousands of dollars to rent, little to no funding is left in the budget for set pieces, costumes, props, and stipends for teachers' involvement in production processes. Furthermore, the limited budget prevents the department from bringing in outside contractors such as professional choreographers, designers, and production managers, placing additional burdens on teachers.
Despite financial obstacles, at Walls, the show has managed to go on, with the planning process starting long before most Walls students and staff see it though.
According Malcolm Willoughby, Walls’ music teacher and music director for school productions, he, Ms. Z, and Mr. Alberts sit down with one another at the beginning of the school year to discuss their respective ideas for the musical and play that year, considering a variety of factors.
“The main factor is budget,” Ms. Z said, explaining that the show cannot involve “an intricate stage or costumes.” Mr. Willoughby added that, when choosing a show, the gender breakdown of the characters is an important factor, as typically many more female students audition for roles than male students.
After considering logistical factors, the three department faculty leaders will consider the artistic value of the shows to further narrow down what they choose to produce. “It comes down to what might the students relate to,” Ms. Z said, preferring “a show with depth of story, timeless themes and emotional relatability for the actors.”
The three of them recently underwent this very decision process when they decided on this spring’s musical. They chose Rent, Jonathan Larson’s hit rock musical about a group of twenty-somethings in New York City’s East Village grappling with love and love and loss amidst the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“Rent was chosen for its relevance, social impact, and artistic merit,” Mr. Alberts said. Once the faculty have worked through these criteria they are able to purchase rights to the show they’ve selected (another financial burden).
The fact that the day when all the needs of Walls’ theater are met may still be a long time away doesn’t seem to deter Walls faculty from investing time, energy and care into the program. No matter the challenges, “witnessing the students' growth, passion, and the impact of our productions on the community is truly rewarding,” Mr. Alberts said.
Mr. Alberts may be right that the process is ultimately a fulfilling and necessary one, because if there’s anything that’s true in the theater it is that no matter what it takes to get there, the show must go on.