A Play of Their Own

middle school commissions script from L.A. playwright

Caleb Gerdes, photos by Andrea Paulseth

South Middle School students are getting the chance to perform on stage (above) and work behind the scenes (right) on the production of the play Haunted House 360, which was written for the school by Los Angeles-based playwright Sean Abley.
South Middle School students are getting the chance to perform on stage (above) and work behind the scenes (below) on the production of the play Haunted House 360, which was written for the school by Los Angeles-based playwright Sean Abley.

University and community theater groups in the Chippewa Valley have brought to life many wonderful productions over the years, bringing the region well-deserved acclaim as an exciting place to get involved in the theater. At the moment, however, one of the most interesting places to be an aspiring artist around here isn’t on the stage of an adult theater company: It’s at South Middle School.

South students are staging the world premiere of an original play, Haunted House 360, on Nov. 3-4, with the playwright, Sean Abley, in attendance as the special guest. Abley is a Los Angeles-based playwright, actor, and director, who wrote Haunted House 360 on commission from the school. While he’s in town, Abley will provide a few workshops to kids from around the school district with the hope of inspiring the next generation of actors, playwrights, and theater lovers.

“I’m really into the arts, so getting to meet somebody who actually does that as a career is pretty amazing.”
South Middle School student Maggie Sauls on working with playwright Sean Abley, who was commissioned to write for the school

Those involved say the making of Haunted House 360 has been a wonderful experience from day one, which was shortly after the school produced one of Abley’s other plays. Just before the first showing of last year’s play, Abley sent a large postcard to Sue Fulkerson, the director for both plays and a lifetime theater-lover. “I started directing at (age) 15 and never has a playwright done this,” she explains. After the production finished, Fulkerson reached out to Abley to thank him, and he asked if they wanted to have a play commissioned for the following year’s production. After nine months of “delightful collaboration,” the show is now in its final rehearsals. Sean greatly appreciated the opportunity to work with Fulkerson and said the collaborative process was excellent; his biggest challenge was setting up the script’s timing so the hauntings would take place at the correct moments in both acts.

The dedication to creating the perfect script for South students has made this production a unique experience not only for Fulkerson and Abley, but for the kids as well. In the words of actress/student Maggie Sauls, “It’s like we got the people, then he wrote the script.” That’s part of what makes Abley’s business, Plays to Order, work so well. For him it has been a surprisingly unique business: The play was written within parameters Fulkerson set up, including how many students would participate and the technical aspects of the play. For instance, it was written with South’s 40-foot rotating stage in mind.

Haunted House 360, a play in two acts, first features middle school students visiting an old (and supposedly haunted) house as a school project. Many problems ensue as hilarious haunting take place. The second act shows the set revolved to expose the ghosts responsible for the haunting. This will be the world premier of Haunted House 360, so South students and staff will forever be listed in the publishing catalog as the show’s original cast and producers.

Student actors and techies are ecstatic about the play and their opportunity to meet Abley when he visits. “I have been really enraptured with acting and plays,” Sauls explained. “I’m really into the arts, so getting to meet somebody who actually does that as a career is pretty amazing.” And Josie Otte said, “I really want to meet him because he can give so many pointers and tips and help us in our acting careers.”

The play itself has been “a lot work, especially since this is our longest play yet,” said smiling student Emily Ruth. Fulkerson and Abley noted repeatedly how wonderful the kids are and how important the production is for these students. The skills, both interpersonal and technical, they have the opportunity to learn are ideal for the students’ growth – and they’re having fun to boot. For example, the middle school crew built their own assortment of amazing props, some of which – such as the Hauntenator 2000 – were written into the script by Abley to encourage the kids’ creativity.

Beyond the technical aspects of the play and the hard work, there is a visible sense of fun and camaraderie, said actor Max Weiber. “I like the play experience of how the social spectrum changes from the outside world being normal school time and the social spectrum flops once you’re in here,” Weiber said. Otte continued this train of thought: “I love how everyone bonds together and you all know each other’s lines and know each other’s lives; you’re all best friends now.”

The public performance of Haunted House 360 will be at 7pm, Tuesday, Nov. 4, at South Middle School.

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