In a school year full of challenges and no shortage of misery, the theatre troupe at Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School found a way to channel some of that sorrow into their latest production – Poe: Dreams of Madness.
The play, which wrapped up last weekend, explores the troubled mind of American writer Edgar Allan Poe – played by Logan Hendry – who throughout the production battles with increasingly disturbing nightmares, each a real-life representation of several of Poe’s most famous works.
From the Tell-Tale Heart – which tells the gruesome story of an old man’s murder and the killer’s attempt to cover up his crime, only to be driven mad by a noise he believes to be the victim’s beating heart – to The Pit and the Pendulum, a morose tale of imprisonment and torture, the production staged by the PSO drama students featured many spine-tingling tales with no happy endings to be found.
The choice to perform such a dark and gloomy production was fitting, given the events around the world and close to home over the past 10 months, and PSO drama teacher Vincent Collins admits the tone of the play seemed appropriate.
“This year, the whole mood and energy of the school and community was sullen,” Collins says. “The choice of Poe was, in much respect, born out of a desire to reflect our reality. At the end of the day, drama is all about telling meaningful stories and so it would have felt weird to tell a cheery story during a pandemic when a story about the ‘Red Death plague’ felt more fitting.”
Although the stories and dialogue were first published close to 200 years ago, the student actors rose to the challenge of flawlessly reciting lengthy stretches of gothic text, while staying true to their disturbed or troubled characters. With 18 actors taking part, many of the students played several different roles throughout the production, sometimes switching back and forth in quick succession.
The bigger challenge for the drama troupe, however, was performing without an audience; due to the current COVID-19 restrictions, the production was live-streamed online with no audience members in attendance. This relatively new means of enjoying live theatre took a while to become accustomed to as a viewer. The actors, however, adjusted well and delivered their bone-chilling performances as though in front of a packed theatre. Hosted by the South Cariboo Theatre, Collins says that performing for a camera instead of an audience presented some new feelings for the cast, but overall, the thrill that comes with live theatre remained intact.
“The students still went through the usual emotions like nervousness, giddiness, anxiousness… but they adjusted incredibly well to the lack of an audience,” Collins says, noting that close to 100 households streamed the performance over the past week. Though streaming was brand new to the theatre troupe and posed plenty of technical and logistical challenges, Collins says it’s something they may consider incorporating into future shows to broaden their reach beyond the community.
The support from the community during these unusual times was especially rewarding, Collins says, noting that such a positive response not only helps keep the drama program going, but has a meaningful impact on the students as well.
“As this pandemic continues to affect so many of us, the teenaged population is being neglected,” Collins says. “They are really struggling. Struggling for a sense of normalcy, of purpose and belonging. By supporting our show, it sent a message to my kids that they matter and that their contribution to society is noticed.”
The troupe will now take a much-deserved break as students focus on other academic courses and Collins will begin to explore options for next year’s production over the next several months.