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“A production isn’t about putting on a good show…it’s about changing lives”: A Conversation with Fredericton High School’s Dwight Dunfield

FHS staged the well-known musical Grease in the Tom Morrison Theatre on Nov. 22 to 25. This show was last performed at FHS in 1998—a production that involved FHS’s current theatre director, Dwight Dunfield, working backstage to prep kids for their “big moment.”

Given that FHS is known for producing shows at an elevated quality, I sat down with Dunfield to discuss the logistics of high school theatre, why Grease is such an endearing and entertaining show and how FHS has been able to delight audiences for over twenty years.

The Brunswickan: How do you think the community benefits from having high school theatre in their area?

Dunfield: I think the first benefit is to the students, and what the students learn from doing a show like this. I mean, we put a hundred kids on stage every year, and so they learn about teamwork, commitment, how to work with other people… And though they don’t always like everybody or everything that they have to work with, they have to do it. It is an inclusive environment, and you’ve got people from all walks that are all coming together to make this happen. The community benefits from what the kids learn. Secondly, I think they benefit from—not to put us up—but I think we put out a really high-quality product every year. So, there’s inexpensive musical theatre, like our school matinees for the Grade 9 and 10 students, and for them it’s exposure to live theatre. A lot of those kids haven’t seen live theatre, for example; you have to teach them when it’s appropriate to clap and when it’s not, just by leading by example.

Bruns: Do you find it to be more about personal development or artistic expression for the students?

Dunfield: Both, definitely. You can’t have one without the other. A lot of these kids we have over four years; you see growth artistically, but you also see changes in attitude—changes in the person. I’ve said for a long time that a production isn’t about putting on a good show—that’s a product of what we do—but a production is about changing lives. Sometimes you have difficult kids, but through a production they have a place where they’re safe, included and valued. You can get someone who is really introverted and shy—but for whatever reason comes out to a production—and you see them grow and open up over four years. Just huge changes in how they’re willing to work, how far they’re willing to go to put on a good show… It’s all of it.

Bruns: What aspects of the show do you think will excite audiences?

Dunfield: Well I mean, Grease is Grease; everybody knows it. Everybody knows the music, the big songs are there, the dance, the high energy, “Greased Lighting,” “Shaking at the High School Hop”, “Beauty School Dropout,” everybody comes to Grease because they love the music. The story, on the other hand, is a little on the despicable side: girl changes to get the guy and there’s no consequences for misbehaviour. That isn’t exactly what you want to teach to high school students, but you can teach with negative examples too! I think what’s really exciting is the music that drives the show, and you can really reminisce over it.

Bruns: From your perspective as the director, what was the deciding factor in picking Grease for your production this season?

Dunfield: There were a few. I always pick a show based on the students that I have—looking at the talent that I know I have—and I have to be able to cast a show based on that. That’s one reason you always get a good show, just through not trying to fit square pegs into round holes, for example. That’s always the number one factor, and it’s nothing about my personal preference, ever. I said ten years ago that I would never do this show, and here I am now doing it! But that’s just because it was the right show for the group of kids that I have. The other thing about the show is the former director at FHS passed away this past spring, and he directed for 20-something years, Jim Myles. I did this show with him in 1998; he was directing and I was backstage. The Saturday show will be done in his memory, as this was one of his big shows. So, I would not have done this show if it didn’t meet the first requirement—but since it did, it makes for a nice little tribute as well.

Bruns: How does support from the community play into these productions?

Dunfield: Oh, it’s always huge, I mean, this show’s going to cost over $30,000 to put on. When you look at what it costs for microphones, a hundred kids and the building of a set to hold a hundred kids… $10,000 in royalties? It’s huge. So, obviously, the community support—both in terms of advertising and in attending the shows—we can’t put on the shows without them. Nobody really understands, I think, how much it costs to do this, so community support in attendance and things like sponsorships, that’s our entire income. We don’t charge the kids anything to be in it; we’re entirely pay-as-we-go, and entirely based on community support. We also have community support in terms of making costumes, painting, building sets, the parents are committed to trucking their kids around and the teachers are part of that community too. There’s school staff supervising backstage, doing makeup, costumes, sets, advertising… And I’d say this involves about 10 per cent of the school population.

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