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Rachael Sternlicht, Sun Graphics Design

March 21, 2018

YANG | This One’s for the Theater Kids

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When the trailer for NBC’s new series, Rise, popped up on my news feed a few weeks ago, I cursed Facebook’s advertising algorithm and made a mental note about the pilot airing date simultaneously. I mean, a show about a high school theater troupe putting on Spring Awakening, starring Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) and produced by Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton)? It practically has my name written all over it.

So naturally I had high expectations going in, but I also worried that Rise might fall into the dangerous trap of clichés. And I believe I was right to a certain degree. While the show is adapted from the 2013 nonfiction book Drama High and is therefore based on a real story, the plot still feels too familiar and overdone. A passionate teacher at a small-town high school attempts to revive a neglected department and ends up recruiting a group of kids who are seemingly incompatible with each other, but together they conquer all obstacles and succeeds — you must have seen or heard a variation of this storyline before. It introduces characters with distinct backstories: a football star, a homeless kid, a girl with a problematic mother, a closeted boy from a religious family and a transgender teen. But as much as I appreciated the diverse range of identities, it made me wonder if the writers had followed a checklist when creating them.

The teacher, Mr. Mazzu (Josh Radnor), inevitably comes into conflict with the assistant director who has more experience than him, the football coach who resents him for taking away his quarterback, the principal who rejects his choice of a topically controversial musical, as well as his own family when he becomes too devoted to his students. As for the cast of Spring Awakening, they shape up to be a rather competent troupe within the span of the pilot, and together deliver a heartwarming, genuine rendition of “I Believe” toward the end of the episode.

So this is where I admit that I am unable to give an unbiased take on this series: first, because there has only been two episodes, but more importantly because I am indeed very, very biased. I can go on about the things Rise didn’t do well, but the one thing it got right is really the only one that mattered to me: the spirit of theater and theater education. And despite all its already evident flaws in structure and plot, I found myself loving every minute of the pilot out of sheer nostalgia as a former theater kid myself.

It is not nostalgia for the blinding spotlight, the flowers, the applause or the recognition. It is, however, nostalgia for the opportunity to briefly escape reality and live another life, for the creative process that requires months of nonstop laboring, and for the almost euphoric sense of pride that comes from being a part of something bigger than myself. It is, most importantly, nostalgia for the invaluable friendships that bloomed in the long hours of tech rehearsals, for the moments of vulnerability and doubt in the darkness backstage, and for the unshakable knowledge that this is the place I belong.

At the cusp of turning twenty and officially becoming not a teenager, I’ve realized that I learned the most important lessons as a teenager in a small high school auditorium, in front of and behind some old, dusty curtains. I was lucky enough to find a place that pushed me to be braver than I was, to be more than what I thought I was, but also accepted me exactly as I was. So when Michael (Ellie Desautels) introduces himself as Michael instead of Margaret and no one bats an eyelash, when Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) decides to follow his heart and join the cast, and when Mazzu convinces Simon (Ted Sutherland) to play a homosexual character in Spring Awakening, I understood and reminisced on exactly what it feels like to take risks, to persist, to believe.

“We are a troupe. A sacred troupe,” says Mr. Mazzu to the cast. And indeed they are. Student and amateur theater may not be Broadway or West End in quality — it probably shouldn’t be anyway — but it best embodies the spirit of the arts and exemplifies the ideals of the theater tradition. It is about being passionate about the craft, expressing oneself and breaking boundaries even when the world seems to disallow it. So speaking solely in terms of honoring the theater tradition and showing theater education’s power to change lives, Rise has more than done it justice.

Andrea Yang is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes Till Places runs alternate Thursdays this semester.