In the spring of her junior year at Center High School in south Kansas City, Eleanor Peoples finally took on the lead role in a play. She had been in the theater department for three years and was really excited.
By now, most people can guess what happened next: A global pandemic brought not only Peoples’ school year to a standstill, but also the spring show she’d waited so long to play on.
“So it never happened, but it was nice to know that I still had what it takes to take the lead,” says Peoples. A year later, she is calm about it.
But her acting teacher Grahm Mahanna was fixated on his students’ disappointment all summer 2020. He was determined to find a way for their performances in case the 2020-2021 school year was a bust for his department as well.
He decided to try something he was already thinking about: podcasts. A podcast would allow students to perform, whether they were studying remotely or in the classroom, and it would put the performances together into one show.
In the fall, Mahanna introduced radio shows from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to members of the Players 58 theater club – named after the school district. Club members sorted scripts from shows and landed on one from 1945 called Beware of Tomorrow. It’s about a killer robot.
Since this show was well received, Mahanna decided to keep pushing. In January, when the students were planning another show, he encouraged them to think creatively.
“The cool thing is that right now it’s so unprecedented, there are no real rules,” says Mahanna. “And because there are no rules, it’s really exciting because it lets us do things that we’ve never been able to do.”
A performance by “Charlie Brown” in the fall of 2019 was the last time members of Players 58 were photographed together.
He had students listen to PRX’s The Moth Radio Hour, which contains the real stories of the people. They decided to write short scripts for themselves about similar experiences.
Students delivered pieces on family dynamics, racial relationships, and mental health.
“You did a really amazing job,” says Mahanna. “It was so introspective and deep, and it took me a bit by surprise.”
He liked the work of the students so much that he invited the entire student body to participate. The Black Student Union was already working on pieces for a poetry slam, so he specifically asked for work from members.
One of these students was the aspiring Senior Marques Griffith, also a member of Players 58. He wrote and performed a monologue called “For Pops,” prompting “I am not your _____” to write.
In this case, that space was “son”.
Griffith wrote about the seven years since the man he considered his father was gone.
Parts of the monologue are funny: the man who could dance better than Michael Jackson and who demonstrated potentially pant-ripping martial arts moves. He laid a strong foundation for Griffith’s future.
It ends: “I reach for the sound of your voice and only remember the cold granite that was placed on it. How could I not remember everything you did for me? How could I forget my favorite superhero’s face? I am not your son. “
Mahanna says teachers who heard the podcast call it heartwarming.
They told him they were “pleasantly surprised to see this level of vulnerability, especially when we’re so separated from Zoom and Teams and we can’t have the interaction we normally would.”
Peoples performed a script, submitted anonymously by a classmate, entitled “I’m Your Little Blue Flower”.
She recorded her appearance alone in her room with her cell phone.
“That was very important to the person who wrote it,” says Peoples. “It’s about watching a friend go through depression and attempt suicide, so it was really difficult for her to sit and support her.”
The friend figure Peoples struggled with their own limits and wished they could do more.
Peoples is quick to point out that acting for a cellphone and acting in an auditorium are not the same thing.
“It’s very different to perform in front of other people because you have a lot more nervous energy to draw from, and I didn’t have that, I just sat alone,” she says.
Still, she loved her high school acting experience and plans to study Technical Theater and Design at Avila University this fall.
Mahanna says he really hopes this is the only time he has to find alternative ways for his students to learn the craft of acting. But in a way, he’s glad they all got to try something different.
“I’ve never been so proud of a show we did,” says Mahanna. “There was nothing like it and they exceeded all of my expectations.”
Players 58 Radio Hour is available on all podcast services.