Hingham High School students sat on couches and chairs in the school drama office on an “in-school field trip” Monday morning, as playwright Alan Haehnel thought deeply for a moment about religion.
It will be a tricky subject matter for the student actors to digest as they work their way through “Onward,” a new play that will be performed for the first time during the Massachusetts Educational Drama Guild Festival preliminary round on March 3.
“I don’t want to be critical [of religion],” Haehnel said about the script, which he wrote specifically for Hingham High students. “But I wanted to create an atmosphere where someone was feeling oppressed.”
The play centers on Anna, played by Hingham student Meghan Cashel, and takes place the night before her wedding day. On the precipice of change, Anna is forced to confront her sexuality and her family’s deeply religious background.
It brings up some difficult topics for the students to consider, including what it’s like being different, how to understand an ultaconservative religious family, and issues of depression, thoughts of suicide, and the idea of what marriage really means.
“It’s risky, which is fun,” Haehnel said. “To hit this head on, know we have an on-stage kiss between two girls, know we have this religious language. It’s fun - it’s fun because it will challenge the audience, it will challenge the kids. [They will have to ask themselves] how far will I go towards this artistic portrayal…I’m just very glad I’ve come across a group of kids that’s willing to take that risk with me.”
The playwright has been writing for high schools for the past 40 years, and has published over 100 plays.
Although many of his works are “school friendly,” Haehnel decided to step out of the box when Hingham High School English teacher and drama department head Anita Levy-Sisk contacted the author, asking him to write something a bit more controversial.
“She had expressed some interest that address equality issues, especially homosexuality. And that’s [exciting], cause it's subject matter I generally don’t deal with, because in many parts of the country they say, ‘We won’t touch that,’ ” Haehnel said.
It took Haehnel a few months to come up with the concept, and a few weeks to write the script. Before long, Levy-Sisk had cast the play, and rehearsals started in January.
Prior to prelims, the students will perform two, in-school performances. Although Levy-Sisk isn’t sure how the school community will react to the play, she has little concerns about others who will see it.
“The community of these kids' parents I think will be very pleased with it. And at festival, as long as no one feels we’re bashing religion, which is not the intent, but because you have a tendency to have questioning sexuality between any arts group, I think they will be very receptive,” she said.
As for the students themselves, as they ask questions about the religious meaning behind the words in the script, and work through the challenge that performing a drama brings with it, Levy-Sisk also hopes the students glean new insight through the piece.
“I hope the kids take away a better understanding of people they don’t already know, differences in our world, a little bit more tolerance for things that are different…respect for the art form and what it can do, and a respect about the work ethic behind creating,” she said.
Although only a month into rehearsals, the students said they have already learned a lot from the play and learned even more from the playwright
“I learned a lot more as to what kind of comments he’s making on the human condition. Before I was picturing this commenting on religion…and escape from a religious family to pursue what you want, but not necessarily in a negative way. But this is escaping expectations and escaping what you’re told to be rather than a religious family,” said senior Tyler Oser, 18, who plays the part of Glen, the husband to be. “It makes it a lot more relatable. It’s easier for me to interpret and its easier for me to perform.”
As the performance date looms every nearer, students like Emma Givney, 17, hope the piece sheds some light for others as well.
“We always get an interesting response. … There could be some people who are uncomfortable with it. There are religious people and extremely liberal people in the school. I think we should expose them to this, but I think we should expect some backlash,” Givney said. “We might get some taunting and high school crap. But I think it will speak to some people and I think that will be really cool.”
The students will perform a preview performance on Feb. 29 at 7 p.m at the High School. The preliminary round of festival will be performed at Borne High School on March 3 at 3 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.