Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 14, 2003

Dueling 'Crucibles' Dueling 'Crucibles' (November 14, 2003)

Both Gunn and Castilleja to stage productions of Arthur Miller's classic drama

by Melinda Casillas

T he green room at Gunn High School's Studio Theatre is teeming with activity. In one corner, a student constructs a precarious soda can pyramid while several others cheer him on. In another, someone writes "Welcome Castilleja" in giant block letters on a white board. Jim Shelby, Gunn's theater director, walks quickly through the throng of buzzing juniors and seniors, pausing once to playfully pretend to slug a kid in the stomach (who obliges by heaving an appropriate ugh and staggering backwards a couple steps).

Castilleja actors arrive with their director, Bear Capron, and there is a renewed sense of frenzy as students from both schools help themselves to pizza and drinks. They gather in the Studio Theatre and prepare to get down to the business of discussing their schools' respective fall productions. Coincidentally (though Capron is quick to point out there are no coincidences), both schools are performing "The Crucible" this year.

While Shelby and Capron have been good friends for 15 years, frequently exchanging ideas and discussing their works-in-progress, the directors were surprised to learn their casts were simultaneously working on the same play. Both cited similar reasons for choosing "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's play about hysteria and paranoia in Salem, Mass. during the infamous witch trials of the late 17th century.

"The Crucible" was first performed in 1953, when controversial investigations were being conducted to root out Communist sympathizers in the United States. "The Crucible," which drew blatant parallels between Salem's witch hunts and McCarthyism, had only a short run at the time of its opening (compared to Miller's other plays). Since then, it has returned to Broadway four times, in 1967, 1972, 1991, and most recently in 2002, starring Liam Neeson. This year marks the play's 50th anniversary.

"It's just disturbingly relevant now. There's a real sense of despair that there are powers moving our society that we don't have a handle on. There are liberal enclaves trying to keep our feet on the ground while the powers-that-be are saying we have to wage a war, elect a new governor..." Capron said.

Shelby added, "Sometimes the cure is worse than the threat."

They agreed it would be a great experience to introduce the casts, so the students could bounce ideas off one another and discuss any struggles or triumphs they've had with characterization and staging.

"We were also hoping it would be a de-stressor for the kids, who have been so dedicated this year," Capron said. "They've been rehearsing every day for eight weeks."

Sitting, kneeling and lounging in seats in the Studio Theatre, the students who play each other's counterparts in "The Crucible" have introduced themselves and are excitedly talking about their roles. Shelby -- who is endearingly called "Shelby" by his students -- calls the 40 actors and crew members to the stage, asks them to sit in a large circle, and tells them they may take their pizza with them (a melodramatic gasp erupts from Gunn students, who apparently have never been allowed food or drink on the stage before).

Once assembled, the kids are quickly immersed in group discussion. How do their sets differ? How do they get into character? How do they summon the emotions needed to portray a housewife accused of being a witch? A proud but unfaithful husband? A young girl in hysterics? And of course on everyone's mind, how does Castilleja fill the male roles?

"Let's just say there are a lot of tenors in the Salem choir!" Capron quipped.

Sara Croll is a Castilleja junior playing Danforth, the presiding judge in the witch trials.

"Having played everything from old men to young romantic leads, I can tell you it's a very creepy experience. Not seeing or being around boys much, you pretty much just make it up. You change your walk, your voice...

"When you're at a school where gender is taken out of the picture, I start actually thinking, 'I am a girl, right?'" Croll said.

In addition to having women play male roles, Castilleja will sometimes "borrow" men from other places. John Proctor, the lead male character, is a stern man who hates hypocrisy, yet hides an extramarital affair from his community. Although admitting to the affair could bring an end to the town's hysteria and even to the trials themselves, Proctor hesitates to ruin his own good name. Castilleja has cast Brad Yule, a Foothill freshman, to play the role.

"The Crucible is a fun play," said Yule, who is studying physics. "It's great to do something not math-geeky."

When asked about acting with girlfriend Paz Hilfinger-Pardo in the same play -- or for that matter, acting at all -- Yule added, "It's difficult when you have to explode at someone you care about... I have no problem being sad or angry or confused. But when it comes to having a breakdown and sobbing, that's just not what I do, so I fake it, and I don't like that. I need to find a way to really feel it."

Hilfinger-Pardo is equally challenged in her role as Elizabeth Proctor, John's virtuous wife. Although the reputedly honest and trustworthy Elizabeth knows of her husband's infidelity, she lies in court to save him from arrest.

"Elizabeth is the hardest part I've ever played. She's so intelligent and so aware of what's going on around her and yet, so not ."

As if finding suitable actors for male roles isn't challenging enough, Capron ran into another hitch with this production. He couldn't find an African-American female able to fill the role of Tituba, a slave girl from Barbados who is partially responsible for inciting the witch hunt.

After approaching a couple Castilleja students and even considering the possibility of borrowing a student from Eastside Prep, Capron and eager student Julia Renand set to work researching 17th-century Salem. They discovered that Irish immigrant girls were also used as servants and held a similar social ranking to that of African-Americans. Capron adjusted the script accordingly, replacing Tituba with "Briget O'Malley," and Renand stepped up to the plate.

"It just worked out perfectly," Capron said.

Ashley Windham, a Gunn senior said it's been a challenge playing the villainous role of Abigail Williams, the adolescent character with whom John has an affair. Abigail is wily, intelligent, and vindictive, eventually sending 19 innocent people to their deaths.

"[Abigail] is so bi-polar. She acts differently around different people, so I'm always having to remember who I'm on stage with at that moment. On the other hand, acting differently around different people is something I can relate to," Windham said.

In an engaging exercise, the directors ask several actors from each school to perform scenes together. It's obvious the students are excited to do it, and equally obvious they aren't quite sure how to position themselves on stage with one another.

Nevertheless, things go relatively smoothly and each scene gets an enthusiastic ovation from the "audience." Will Brill, a Gunn senior who also plays John Proctor, tells everyone of his performance, "It was nerve-wracking having the Castilleja kids in the audience!"

The schools are just days from their opening nights, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Although they know the lines, some students still cling to their scripts like security blankets during rehearsals, and Gunn has more set construction and painting to do. In the group discussion, someone from Castilleja asks the Gunn cast where they'll stage a particular scene, and 10 arms point in at least four different directions.

However, both directors describe themselves as "oddly calm," for which they give the same reason: they have the most dedicated and hard-working students ever this year.
E-mail Melinda Casillas at
Editor's note: James Shelby is also a movie critic for the Palo Alto Weekly.

What: "The Crucible," by Arthur Miller, will be presented by the Gunn High School Theatre Department and Castilleja School's Drama Department

Where: Gunn High School Studio Theatre (behind Spangenberg Theatre), 780 Arastradero Road in Palo Alto; Castilleja Chapel Theater, 1310 Bryant St. (corner of Embarcadero) in Palo Alto.

When: Show times for Gunn's production are Nov. 14, 15, 20, 21, and 22 at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Nov. 19 at 3:30 p.m. Show times for Castilleja's production are Nov. 20, 21, 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets for Gunn's production are $8 for regular performances, $4 for the matinee. Tickets for Castilleja's production are $5/ $10. Tickets for both productions will be available at the door.

Info: Call (650) 354-8258 for more information about the Gunn production. For more information about Castilleja shows, call (650) 328-3160 ext. 401.


Copyright © 2003 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.