This year, Hillcrest High School’s award-winning theatre department hopes to continue to wow audiences as they prepare to lift the curtain on an American debut nine-years in the making. Nearly a decade ago, Hillcrest fine arts teacher Joshua Long took a trip to London. While he was there, he spent the day at the Royal National Theatre where he first set eyes on “The James Plays,” written by Rona Munro.
“She’s a Scottish playwright who grew up learning about Scottish history,” Long says, “and there is a lot of crazy stuff that went down there in history, and she wanted to theatricalize that and put it on stage as part of her Scottish heritage.”
The trilogy of plays captures more than 60 years of Scottish history, each play focusing on one of the Stewart kings who ruled Scotland during the time, James I, II, and III. “The James Plays” premiered at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh in 2014 before transferring to the National Theatre where Long saw them. Now, he’s bringing them to the Americas and to the Canyons District. “I immediately knew this was something I wanted our students at Hillcrest to do,” says Long.
Three of the 136 cast members sat down with Connect Canyons to discuss Hillcrest’s production, all expressing a mix of excitement and nervousness at being the first to perform these roles outside of the U.K.
“I just think it’s a really great honor that I get to portray James the second,” says Gabriel Abbott, who is the lead in the second play. “I just feel like people are going to be missing out on this great opportunity to see these great plays that we’ve been working on and putting so much effort and time in. They really should come see them.”
Mary Willhite will portray Queen Joan of Scotland and is one of the few characters who will appear in both the first and second play, first as a young Joan set to marry James I, then as an older Queen Joan in the second play. “It’s a lot of experiences to take into consideration of what happens in between the shows,” Willhite says. “There’s a lot that happens after the first show that we don’t see that is very crucial for Joan, my character. So it takes a lot of work to like figure out, okay, how did that affect her and how am I going to make that visible on stage?”
Long says the plays give the students an opportunity to try new things on stage, like a 10-minute medieval football match in James II. “People don’t exactly know the rules of how they did it during that time period, but what we do know is it’s like a mixture of rugby, American football, and soccer, then it all devolves into a gigantic wrestling match,” he says.
There are also two massive battle scenes which put under the theatrical microscope. “We learned a lot of sword technique and footwork along with different historically accurate parries,” says Auston Beals, who portrays James III in the final play. “Then we have a choreographer going through each little fight and making sure everything is accurate.”
On top of the physicality of the plays, there are four accents being used in the speaking roles, along with the added layering of teen actors portraying teen royalty. I’ve directed over a hundred shows at Hillcrest,” says Long, “and honestly, every day in rehearsal, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this writing is so good.’”
Long points to a plot twist in the final moments of the second play. “It’s right after the football game,” he says, “and it’s these two teenage boys in one of the most difficult acting scenes I have ever given two students, but it is so cool seeing them in these rolls because their characters are actually teenagers.”
All three student actors see the depths of their characters and the acknowledgement of the human condition.
“These plays have a lot of characters who are not good and they’re not bad,” says Willhite. “All of these characters have so many layers to them and are just parts of humanity. I guarantee anyone who comes to see these shows can relate to a part of a character in one way or another.”
Long also touts the playwright’s research on the women who support the three Jameses. “They sometimes get lost in history,” says Long, “and she fleshed out a lot of these really great female characters.”
While it’s new material never seen in the U.S. before, the actors feel audiences will take something away from any of the plays. “If you do come and see it,” says Beals, “leave your heart open and allow the story that you’ve never heard before to really hit you, and listen to it and learn. Let Rona teach you something, she will.”
Tickets for “The James Plays” go on sale Thursday, Feb. 8 and can be purchased as single shows or in a discounted package.