Claremont students stage school drama

Saanich school's production of Up the Down Staircase runs Feb. 8 to 11 and 15 to 18

Grade 11 Claremont student Tess Kotchonoski plays teacher Sylvia Barrett in Up the Down Staircase.

Grade 11 Claremont student Tess Kotchonoski plays teacher Sylvia Barrett in Up the Down Staircase.

As the teenaged actors of Claremont secondary’s drama class laugh across the stage for a late January rehearsal, it’s clear some lines are still in need of polishing for their production of Up The Down Staircase, which runs Feb. 8 to 11 and 15 to 18.

“The fun energy you’ve had as a class in the last five minutes is what you want to have for the first five minutes [of the show],” says drama teacher Colin Plant. “This play is [part] comedy with a lot of heart. It’s a play that teaches the students a lot because it has a lot to say, and it lets them learn about acting.”

Plant selected Up the Down Staircase for its balance of youth roles, adult roles (played by the students), entertainment and education. Originally a 1964 Bel Kaufman book of the same title, it became a feature film in 1967. The story is centred around a young teacher, Sylvia Barrett (played by Grade 11 Tess Kotchonoski), who is thrown into the mayhem of an inner-city New York school. Students are generally unresponsive to all but the school’s strict demand for paper forms. The over-crowded school also designated certain staircases as one way, which Barrett learns.

“In the time I’ve been here I’ve only done comedies, so to be able to have a serious play is a nice change,” said Grade 12 Jay Green, who plays troubled student Joe Ferrone.

“I’m better at delivering comedy than I am at delivering serious lines, and in this I have to yell a lot, so I’m yelling at Tess [Sylvia], and trying to get that anger across without seeming comedic is weird.”

Despite Green’s candor, Ferrone’s lines came across as strong and confident during the early rehearsal.

“If anything we’re in discussion of toning down the New York accents,” Green said. “Some people have them and some don’t.”

For Kotchonoski, it’s a win to play Barrett.

Kotchonoski had seen Brentwood College’s 2013 production of Up The Down Staircase and supported its choice when the class held a workshop on what play they would perform.

“I really like the dialogue and script, it’s unique with funny dialogue, it’s old school,” Kotchonoski said. “It’s also a big production, since Claremont is only doing one drama production this year [instead of two].”

As Barrett, Kotchonoski is busy, turning from one scene to the next as students, teachers and other staff constantly pass through her classroom.

“The idea of a teacher trying to make a difference in the classroom is a universal story whether it’s from 1959 or 2017,” Plant said. “So even though the time period is different, the ideas of what we think of teachers and the expectations we have on teachers to make a difference with all students are sometimes unrealistic. And yet that’s what drives teachers.”

Tickets for Up The Down Staircase are $7.50. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 9 (8 p.m.), 10, 11, and Feb. 15, 16, 17, 18 in Claremont’s Ridge Theatre.