Giving students four weeks to write a full-length play might sound like a Herculean task -- and it is -- but the student muses in a Monte Vista AP class are more than up for the challenge.
At first glance Jenyth Utchen's AP English literature class might seem wildly out of control, with 31 seniors running in and out of the classroom, talking on top of each other. But Utchen encourages this is carefully constructed chaos each year as her class spends the final quarter of the school year developing a play based on themes and readings discussed in class.
"We started writing a couple weeks ago, it seems to always go like this. It's hectic but it's good," said Head Writer Ben Shear.
Using the number 12 as a conceit, students were charged with creating a 90-minute dramatic-tragic-pathetic comedy employing Hercules and Hades. The play must have 12 scenes, incorporate musical numbers and have a pair of scissors on stage at all times. Oh, and every student has to speak at least one line.
"Some people are really excited and some are really nervous because they're shy and others just really like to make fools of themselves," said Eric Palonsky, the play's publicity director.
The seemingly random creative seeds were planted and as students set to work creating the creative beanstalk, they developed "Ode on a Grecian TurnUp," the story of Hercules trying to rush a fraternity. Jumping off of Hercules' 12 trials, the students envisioned a fraternity led by Hades that gives its potential members 12 different initiations.
"They're writing in a whole bunch of random little things that to an outsider wouldn't mean much but they look at the books we've read, the huge term paper, but all these connections they've made are actually going to transfer to the show," Utchens said.
Each student was given a production task -- from props master to producer which they had to apply for with a resume and cover letter. Bidisha Roy has performed classical Indian dance and Bollywood for several years, so dance choreographer was the perfect fit for her.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Bidisha took a group of girls and skeptical boys out to the hallway to practice Bollywood moves and hand gestures. "Make your hands pretty like this," she told the group, folding down a few fingers and turning her hands over and over again. "Ode" will have several musical numbers, some of which are recycled and adapted from plays such as "West Side Story."
A writer of short stories, essays and poetry who usually writes alone, Ben said he loves the collaborative aspect of play production.
"I really love brainstorming, coming up with scenes in a classroom environment because there's a lot of great writers and pretty stellar thinkers in this class," he said.
Utchens set out to encourage creative, collaborative thinking with the play assignment in 1989 at Vacaville High School. Students were burnt out from test-taking, term papers and the 16 required readings by the last quarter of the school year and putting on a production seemed to invigorate her class.
"They know a lot about lit analysis,they know a lot of plays and novels and short stories and poetry…they know how to do it from a critical point of view but the creative point is really different," Utchens said. "Whole artistic process is really interesting and the ways schools are designed now, we don't have the opportunity to share these creative processes."
Over the years, adaptions such as "Cramalot," "Lit, actually" and "Kiss me through the phone" have been a major hit among Monte Vista staff and students. Funds raised by the performance are put toward a set of classroom texts for the following year's students; 2013 seniors received Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" from their predecessors.
"I don't like to teach the same course every year," Utchens said, adding that the gift books at usually pre-20th century texts. "They can be parallel or an alternate text, which is nice especially for an advanced student to have the option to choose."
"Ode" performers have yet to choose their gift book and are focusing instead on completing scenes, lighting schemes and costumes for the play, which debuts on Friday, June 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 each and additional information can be found at mvAPELit@gmail.com.