The Theater Arts program at Thomson High School has big ambitions for this school year.
First, the troupe — under second-year chorus and drama teacher Wesley Walker — has the ambitious goal of staging three separate productions this year.
This year, the school will present its annual one-act performance for the GHSA public high school competition. They will also perform “Elf – The Musical,” which will be the program’s annual fundraiser, and then “Into the Woods,” which will be the spring performance.
Second, the program was accepted as one of 50 guests to participate in the Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards this year.
The Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards will bring judges to THS to attend and judge a performance of “Into the Woods” in the spring, with the possibility of student performers being selected to participate in the annual Shuler Awards in Atlanta. Students selected from 50 high schools will travel to Atlanta for an intensive rehearsal and performance process in April. Those who receive awards at this level would be eligible for selection for the National High School Musical Theater Awards – known as the Jimmys – in New York.
But rather than feeling the pressure of high expectations for both a vigorous performance schedule and the potential to compete at higher levels, Walker and his students are excited and invigorated by the possibilities.
Senior Madison Dawson has been involved in theater since sixth grade, when a friend asked her to fill in for her. She quickly realized that it suited her perfectly.
“I am a dramatic person. I like to be on top,” she said. “What I love the most is bringing the characters to life.”
Dawson’s involvement in performance was not limited to the high school curriculum.
She starred as Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and played the Baker’s Wife in ‘Into the Woods’ with ACT in Warrenton, and will direct a staging of ‘Elf’.
She also became involved with the Augusta Players last fall.
Although she hopes to become a professional actress, Dawson also has behind-the-scenes skills that she also values.
“I want to try as a professional, but I think I’ll fall more into set design and things like that,” she said.
Dawson said she was excited about efforts to rejuvenate the former luster of THS’s theater arts program.
“I will say that Mr. Walker really put his all into our high school theater arts program and that was a good thing for all of us,” she said. “I am thrilled that our school has a chance to be recognized at the state level.”
Senior Josh Rabun got involved in theater in fifth grade.
“My first show was at Norris Elementary when I was Santa Claus,” he said. “Since then, music has brought me back because I love all kinds of music and being able to play it.”
He also plays with the Augusta Players.
“The most fun I’ve had with acting is with the Augusta Players,” he said, noting the switch to starring in “Newsies,” “Matilda” and “A Woman Called Truth.”
He should now play Buddy in “Elf”.
“This is my first lead role and I’m thrilled to have to channel that Christmas spirit,” he said.
Rabun said he was happy to see the high school curriculum restored.
“I sometimes feel that at Thomson it wasn’t taken seriously until Mr. Walker. He came and brought attention to the arts and I have a feeling he will continue to do his best to ensure future classes and students are on their way to perfection,” Rabun said. “I’m thrilled the school has this chance to be recognized at the state level.”
Chyra Strong, also a senior, began performing when she was in third grade.
When asked what kept her involved in her high school years, she had a simple answer.
“I was really the people and having something to do that was bigger,” she said.
Although she played Dolores in “Sister Act” with the Augusta Players, and will be the witch in “Into the Woods” at THS, she has a different favorite role.
“My favorite was in ‘The Adams Family,'” she said, “I enjoyed playing Wednesday.”
Strong said the hardest part of being a performer in theater is the character work required to deliver a believable performance for audiences.
“(The hardest part) is the character work because you have to take into consideration that you’re not yourself,” she said.
Although Strong seeks to become a professional performer after college, she respects all other efforts necessary for a performance to shine.
“Everything that everyone has to bring artistically matters,” she said. “It’s not about winning; it’s about contributing and being surrounded by others with a common interest.
As for a career as a professional, Strong isn’t intimidated by the chances of success.
“It’s very competitive, but I like the competition,” she said.
She, too, is excited about the direction THS’ theater program is taking.
“I feel like right now we’re definitely in a better place than we’ve been in for a few years,” Strong said. “It’s good to have a passionate and stubborn director. Mr. Walker is pretty cool.
After eight years in New York to pursue his own theatrical career, THS graduate Wesley Walker returned to Thomson with the intention of restoring the theater arts program.
“I am a veteran of this program. When I was here it was of a very high standard, with excellence not only in the teacher but also in the students,” he said. “There was a high attendance at all of our performances, and then over the years it went down. I moved to New York to work in the theater, and when I got home, I usually tried to come back home the musicals. And, you know, I’m not going to say anything bad about anybody, but I just noticed the quality has gone down.
Part of that was due to the loss of former program manager Pam McCorkle, he said. Walker said he came to the program with a certain mentality.
“I want to treat it like it’s a real theater company creating a product for our community to consume,” he said. “We need to increase attendance and build relationships with the community. I am a boy from my hometown and am able to communicate better with our local businesses…to help us with the resources needed to create a better theater program.
Walker said three separate productions are possible because he teaches several related courses and uses the shows as classroom material.
“They’d rather work on something they can actually present,” he said, than work on skill-building activities that would stay in the classroom.
“They are more invested that way. They work on the lights, the sound, the sets…. It all comes together in one piece that they can perform,” Walker said, noting that students who take acting electives can usually find something they like to work on.
“The goal is for students to create every aspect of what we do,” he said. “I had no idea what you could do in entertainment. In New York there are literally thousands of jobs that aren’t acting. I’d like to make them realize that there are other options if they like this area.
Walker said the three elderly McDuffie’s Progressinterviewed all have great potential for professional careers in entertainment, whether on stage or behind the scenes.
Walker said the Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards — and the chance to advance to higher levels — is a great opportunity for her students.
“We definitely have students at that level, especially in terms of acting ability,” he said. “I think it’s up to me to get them to compete at that level, but we definitely have the raw talent that is at that level. We really have top-level talent here.
Walker said an important local goal for this year is to re-engage public and business community support and interest. Whether it’s a ticket purchase, a donation or help with costumes, meals during rehearsals or chaperone service, help is needed and welcome.
“We are ready and willing to accept their help and input and would love to see them come to our shows,” he said. “We should pack this auditorium like before.”