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Student actors perform in the recent production of "Elf the Musical, Jr." at Marshall Middle School. (courtesy of Jeff Russell)
Mustang Theatre students perform live productions
By John Gregory

Marshall Mustang Theatre productions are good, but there's a lot more to the process than meets the eye. For instance, while the musical theater class was involved in the production of "Elf the Musical, Jr." in mid-November, an entirely different cast of Marshall Middle School student actors from the standard theater class were nearly three weeks into rehearsing the department's next play.  

The entire program is orchestrated by Jeff Russell, the school's theater director. He has been at Marshall for 11 years, nine years as a theater teacher. In 2009, there was one theater class, he said. Now, besides directing each drama production, Russell teaches sixth-grade theater wheel, a musical theater class, one standard theater class and two periods of technical theater. Students in all his classes are involved with live performances for audiences.

The musical theater class performs in two musicals each year, one in the fall/winter semester and one during the spring semester. The regular theater class puts on two full-length, two-act shows per year. The technical theater classes work on each of the musicals and the full-length shows.

Each sixth-grade class is involved in a performance in front of other classes, and the students invite their parents to attend. This usually happens in the seventh week of their nine-week class rotation. The students perform in a one-act show usually no longer than 45 minutes.

"Each of the year-long classes, the regular theater class and the musical theater class, they each do two major productions a year," Russell explained.

"It's always crazy when the show comes together; the sets the lights, the sounds, the actors," He said. "These middle school students come in and (say), 'Yeah, I want to memorize lines, learn choreography, work with a vocal director to sing, pull costumes together, work with set changes, work with microphones, handle expensive equipment and not damage it.' It all comes together and it's amazing every time."

Obviously, Russell doesn't back down from complex challenges

"It's a huge and seemingly insurmountable amount of work. … I honestly look forward to it," he said. "Producing theater is always like a giant, endless puzzle to solve. You always have to latch on to the victories and feel good about when you just figured out how to make something work that you never thought would work."

The program's next production is a two-act comedy called "Mutually Assured Destruction, 10 Plays about Brothers and Sisters." Set to run Jan. 23-26, 2018, it consists of 10 individual connected scenes. Each part goes back about one decade in history.

"It's a great show for the students because there are 20 major roles to be had in my class of 36 students," Russell said. "So, there's a lot to do and everybody gets something major to do on stage."

The technical theater class will be building 10 small living room sets. Yes, this means there will be 10 different couches involved. How does Russell intend to store so much furniture?

"I'm still figuring that out," he explained.

(courtesy of Jeff Russell)

The recent production of "Elf, Jr." was a 60-70-minute pay written for young performers. It is based on the "Elf" movie that starred Will Ferrell as Buddy, the elf. So, how does Russell get middle school students to perform in the role portrayed by a world-class comedian such as Ferrell?

"The big thing with Buddy the elf is that you just need to find students who are willing, or just teach them how to be willing, to be ridiculous in front of an audience; just over-excited about things that people would normally hate, like being excited about going to work," Russell explained. "Every moment in the play is a great opportunity to just celebrate things that are all around you, whether they seem mundane or not."

Russell usually double casts most roles so he can get more students involved. This year the musical theater class was a little challenging when it came to casting because the class consists of 28 girls and one boy. Surprisingly, the one boy did not play Buddy. Instead, the starring role was played by Jaclyn Owens and Jessica Pham. The role of Jovie, the main female love interest, went to Jerry Mansfield and Lilly Laatz. The role of Walter Hobbs, the grumpy father, was played by Danny Vladi and Ione Pennell.

Students in the technical theater classes are completely immersed in the department's productions.

"We actually build physical sets. We construct them, we paint them. They are directly involved in the design process," Russell said. "They design a lighting plot for the show. They work with me to hang and focus the lights. Then, during the actual shows, they do all the set changes. ... We actually have 32 wireless microphones. So, I have students who are turning these on and off and adjusting them during the production as well."

Russell earned a College Career and Technical Education credential which allows the school to use advanced equipment.  

"Our lighting control board is the same lighting control board that's used at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park," He said. "La Jolla High School has the same sound mixing board that we have."

In addition, the department is expecting a very large LED lighting upgrade with about $60,000-worth of new lights, Russell said.

"I always feel lucky that I do this Job," Russell said. "I wouldn't want to do anything else."