By Lynne Hendricks
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Newburyport High School Theater Department is taking audiences back to the 1960s, when peace, love and harmony reigned supreme and America’s youth were rising up to create a new social order.
When the winter production of the Broadway musical "Hair" opens tonight, the school's young actors will be transformed into a tribe of hippy, free-loving friends who in the spring of 1968 could be seen communing on every college campus and city street across America.
On the heels of presenting the weighty subject matter of "Rent," their last production, the students are now poised to fully explore the tumult and sacrifice of a generation of men and women who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War.
The Theater Department is no stranger to bringing mature material to the high school stage. Its last production, "Rent, explored themes of drugs and sex in inner-city New York. But while the high school cast presented a softened version of "Rent" adapted for school productions, the department's directors say no such watered-down script exists for "Hair."
So people should come prepared to experience the original songs and show — sans editing, they said. Co-director Lisa Zaleski said the show is recommended for ages 13 and up, "using parental discretion.”
For those who don’t feel comfortable with such themes, Zaleski invites them to wait and check out the school’s upcoming family-friendly production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
But Zaleski said she and her co-director, Stephanie Williams, feel strongly about providing their theater students the ability to perform shows like "Hair" in addition to more family-oriented productions.
“Throughout their time here, they’re exposed to a variety of genres,” Zaleski said of her students.
Introducing students to more mature subjects through a performance, like those found within "Rent" and "Hair," creates opportunities for communication and education, the directors said.
“We don’t just have rehearsal and do a play,” Williams said.
For instance, in order to more fully grasp some of the issues that drove a generation to cast aside the traditions of their conservative parents and recreate themselves so dramatically, the Newburyport students immersed themselves in “Hair” culture.
They traveled to the Woodstock Museum in Saugerties, N.Y., and took in the collection of 1960s music and memorabilia on permanent display there. They participated in a workshop on "Hair" with a musical theater professor. And they spent two days in retreat, absorbing the experience of communal living by working in the retreat center’s kitchen and participating in yoga sessions and onsite spiritual pursuits.
Back at home, Williams said the cast tackled interdisciplinary projects that involved seeking guidance from the high school’s sociology and psychology students on the complex, emotional issues facing their characters. They interviewed six Vietnam War veterans for a documentary shown to the entire school on Veterans Day. Williams said the veterans were surprisingly candid about their war experiences, which made for emotional viewing.
“We had people say it was the best assembly they’d ever gone to,” Williams said.
In addition, the cast viewed Tom Brokaw’s "1968," a two-hour documentary centered on the lives of people who lived through the turbulent, chaotic period.
And they worked extensively with the Improbable Players, a troupe of recovering addicts out of Boston, on the best ways to embody characters that at various times throughout the play are sampling a vast assortment of psychedelic drugs.
The troupe taught the young performers to focus on the energy of an impaired person rather than looking for stereotypical direction on what someone might look like if they were "high.“
“We wanted to explore the physical and emotional presence of someone who is under the influence of drugs in a sensitive way,” Zaleski said.
The content sparked some unstructured learning opportunities as well, leading to discussions on what it might have been like for a teen growing up in the '60s.
“They’re far removed from 1968, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago," Williams said.
Judging from a roundtable discussion with students like Will Mombello, who plays Woof; Jordan Dunn-Pilz, who plays Berger; Daniel Alvarez Toledo, who plays Claude; and others, plenty of time during the last two months of rehearsals has been spent ruminating on the Vietnam draft\.
While some students, like sophomore Peter Blangiardi, said they would have been happy to enlist, Alvarez Toledo wasn’t so sure.
“The draft was a scary thing with the Vietnam War,” Alvarez Toledo said. “My character is on the verge of deciding whether he wants to go or doesn’t want to go. I think it’s interesting to explore a character like that.”
Dunn-Pilz added, “If that ever was to happen again, we’d end up seeing the same protests that there were in the '60s."
And freshman Emily Phelan said, “It’s our age group, I couldn’t imagine if I had a boyfriend or brother and thinking this might be my last hour with them.”
For sophomore Jenna Gallagher, performing the play and becoming so close to the characters whose lives were connected in many ways to the Vietnam War made her think more realistically about the conflict the U.S. is currently engaged in overseas.
“You learn about this in history class, but you don’t get all the behind-the-scenes things going on,” she said.
In the end, the students surmised that things aren’t so different today than they were in the '60s.
“We’re definitely in the midst of that Age of Aquarius still,” Dunn-Pilz said.
IF YOU GO
When: Today and tomorrow and again Dec. 6 through 8, all at 7 p.m.
Where: Newburyport High School, 241 High St.
How: $12 adults, $8 students and seniors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more.