Brooke Hardman Ditchfield has the enthusiasm of a high school kid when she talks about theater. Surely a positive asset, as she’s the theater instructor at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Adding to this upbeat educational intensity, Ditchfield is a professional actress, making her desire to teach and her need to act an excellent combination. Amusingly, in the way of many teachers in the midst of the last week of musical theater rehearsals, Ditchfield’s voice is sounding somewhat hoarse.
Happily, she’s drawing on all of her experience as she directs this season’s musical, a brand-new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” She’ll need all of her enthusiasm, intensity, and experience to corral and make magic with — take a breath — a cast of 45 (including 15 pre–high school kids), a crew of eight (including a student stage manager), and 10 adult pros and volunteers (including positions in music directing, pit band, and design, among others). And plenty of helpful parents. “As You Like It,” one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is the play that has the line “All the world’s a stage.”
In 2017, the Public Theater presented Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in a new adaptation by Laurie Woolery and Shaina Taub, in Central Park. In this rocking adaptation, most of the spoken dialogue is lifted from the original Shakespeare, while the sung lyrics are mostly modernized.
The story has many of the usual Shakespearean twists and turns, culminating in a quadruple wedding. Before that, we see nobles, rustics, family troubles, runaways, gender switching, love at first sight, a picturesque woodland, and the ubiquitous fool. Suffice it to say, it’s big fun, with lots of laughs and a happy ending.
Last year, the school presented “West Side Story,” and the production was a big hit. The success of “West Side Story” caused Ditchfield and her team to face a happy dilemma: “How do we follow it?” Thinking carefully, they decided to go in the opposite direction, choosing an almost entirely new show. “The experience we all gained from ‘West Side Story’ is one of the reasons we felt we could take on the challenge of an original show,” Ditchfield said. “At the end of the day, this is school, so we try to choose a work that is going to be the best for the students. In this case, there are no recordings to learn from, which makes this a terrific, unique learning experience. They can’t copy anything from film, video, or recordings; they have to create the entire world, making this unusual in realm of high school musicals.”
Abigail Chandler, music director, is in her 10th year teaching music at the high school, and her first as director of the Minnesingers. She has coached all of the singing, and is conducting the six-piece onstage band. “I especially enjoy watching the kids progress through the three-month process,” Chandler says. “I studied opera all the way through college, but musical theater was my first love. I train voice in the bel canto (beautiful singing) style, focusing on breath, placement, and musicality, in order to create a well-produced sound. At least that’s the goal. With this vocal base, a person can then sing in any style. The kids have their own ideas, of course; they’re teenagers.”
Josephine Orr, a senior, is playing Jacques, a dancer and a part of a lion. She also designed the sets. Orr said she likes “how the play was adapted from a classical play into a musical.” Harold Lawry V, also a senior, is playing Touchstone, the fool who “is smarter than everyone else.” Lawry enjoyed having to learn the Shakespeare, and then figuring out how it relates to the modern-day lyrics. “I’ve been acting a really long time,” Lawry says. “I just become the character, hopefully not looking fabricated.”
Junior Violet Cabot is one of those unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes. She’s the stage manager, which is a big job managing details, assisting the director in making sure everything is working, or will be working, smoothly, and running the room. “The most challenging thing, since I’m only a junior, is maintaining authority that is fair and not dictatorlike,” Cabot says. Once the run starts, the stage manager is responsible for cueing, or calling, all entrances and exits and everything that moves on stage not directly handled by an actor. When asked if she is one of those crazy people who likes the huge responsibility of ‘calling’ a show, Cabot immediately says “Yes!”
A word of warning: People were turned away at three of the four performances of last year’s “West Side Story,” so best to buy tickets ahead or go early. “As You Like It,” MVRHS, Feb. 14, 15, and 16 at 7 pm, and Feb. 17 at 2 pm. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors, at ticketsmv.com.