Signature Theatre explores New Deal with 32 students from 18 local schools

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Here's the Deal' (Part 1)

You’ve heard of the “School of Rock,” but how about the School of Theatre?

Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Virginia is working with 32 students from 18 schools to explore FDR’s New Deal in the world premiere of “Here’s the Deal.” It’s part of Signature’s educational program Signature in the Schools, now in its 26th year.

“What we tried to do … was tell the story of the New Deal, because at the heart of every Signature in the Schools production is an education unit, but to tell it in a way that reflected where we are today,” playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings told WTOP.

The story follows anxious Americans debating the government’s role in solving an economic crisis. Stuck at home learning during the pandemic, a group of theater students must develop a play about how the New Deal tackled the Great Depression.

“We see people in their homes dealing with economic disparity, not being able to go to school, and the way they’re written, you don’t know if those scenes are set in 2020 or in the 1930s,” director David Zobell told WTOP. “The writing is open and masterful.”

What lessons can we learn from studying the New Deal?

“I’m old enough to remember my grandparents … being so emotional talking about FDR and what he did for everyone,” Jennings said. “When Biden talks about ‘now is the time to go big,’ it seems to me FDR had an enormous vision of many aspects of society: infrastructure, food, health care. It was fascinating to dive into the research.”

The play also explores criticisms of the New Deal’s scope

“If there were shortcomings of the New Deal … it’s that the New Deal wasn’t designed to help everyone,” Zobell said. “We’re now facing unprecedented challenges in our current times. What can we learn in terms of inclusion? How can we make sure the solutions we come up with for the present moment help everyone, not just some?”

Jennings said even good intentions can backfire with ripple effects.

“When you move one piece, another piece is affected,” Jennings said. “Many times the things you set out to do with the best of intentions, you don’t take a moment to think: what are the implications for other people? If we can keep that in mind as we’re trying to come through this pandemic and fix things, we will have learned a great lesson.”

Pre-production was quite a challenge, meeting virtually with all of the student actors.

“[Zobell] had each actor go around their house and do a full video of their homes and backyards so he could begin to conceptualize how these stories might fit together,” Jennings said. “He was matching walls to see what might look like the same room.”

Wardrobe consultations were also virtual, with students rummaging through closets.

“Our costume designer wasn’t able to safely costume them in person,” Zobell said. “She had individual appointments with each actor, taking them through their personal wardrobe. The designer pieced costumes together based off what they owned.”

Once production began, the filming unfolded virtually for proper social distancing.

“The shooting of this was all done via Zoom and FaceTime,” Zobell said. “With the exception of one 30-second sequence, we never were in the same space together.”

The hours of footage were then compiled and edited together by professional editor Natalie Ridgley of Signature Theatre and Sadie Wyman of Wakefield High School.

“The high school editor worked on three scenes, then the professional editor did the other eight,” Zobell said. “It took them about three and a half weeks to piece the whole thing together. I’m not accustomed to film, I’m a live theater guy, and I learned a lot about what I would do differently next time as I poured through thousands of clips.”

The student cast is joined by professional actor Felicia Curry and a professional crew with Music Supervision by Kenny Neal, Costume Supervision by Alison Samantha Johnson, Assistant Direction and Dramaturgy by Matthew Taylor Strote, Dramaturgy by Joan Cummins and Assistant Production Management by Kimberly Scott.

“What was great was hearing the students say they felt close to and bonded to the other students,” Jennings said. “Even though they were only on Zoom, they really felt a connection and how much they enjoyed working together. It felt like an ensemble.”

Parents were appreciative of the program giving their children a creative outlet.

“I did get an email from one parent whose student has done this program both in person and now virtually … thanking us for continuing and not cutting them off this year and keeping the students artistically and emotionally fulfilled,” Zobell said.

Tickets are $5 via Marquee TV. Find out how to stream here.

“This is the first year the program has been open to students outside of Arlington County,” Zobell said. “This year we opened participation up to students in all of Northern Virginia, so we’re represented by five school districts and one private school.”

Here’s the list of participating schools this season:

  • Arlington Career Center
  • Bishop Ireton High School
  • Chantilly High School
  • Colgan High School
  • Culpeper High School
  • Eastern View High School
  • Fairfax High School
  • H-B Woodlawn Secondary School
  • Hayfield Secondary School
  • Oakton High School
  • Rock Ridge High School
  • South County High School
  • TC Williams High School
  • Thomas Edison High School
  • W.T. Woodson High School
  • Wakefield High School
  • Washington-Liberty High School
  • Yorktown High School
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Here's the Deal' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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