FAIRFIELD — Just minutes after the 2:15 p.m. ring of the school bell at Fairfield Ludlowe High School on Monday signaling the end of the academic day, there was controlled chaos in the school’s Nancy Larsen Auditorium.
It was four days from opening night of “Fake News,” an original play by Ludlowe alumnus Joe Landry, and there was work still to be done by the cast and stage crew to put on the upcoming performance.
“Every show is the same thing: Tech week is always stressful, you never think it’s going to come together, but it always comes together,” said 16-year-old sophomore Luc Gervais, who plays “Sam” in the show.
“I’ve never been in a show where it was like, ‘yeah, we’re ready a week before,’” Gervais joked, surrounded by his castmates Haley Aldrich, Kai Marrelli and Caroline Dayton, and stage manager Grace Geckeler.
The group is part of a 26-member cast that is working to pull off Landry’s largely experimental creation, which was inspired by his former Ludlowe theater director, Frances R. Kondziela, known to Landry and his fellow students affectionately as Miss K.
“She’s been such a dear friend of mine for so long,” said Landry. “I’d been interested to work with high school students and write for that age, and the idea came up about doing sort of a twist on the radio play ‘War of the Worlds’ that is very contemporary. I wrote it over the summer and (Kondziela) asked that I guest direct for her.”
Landry had directed before, experimental pieces in local theaters for small casts. But this is his first time directing high school students. Previously, and also with the support of Kondziela, he had written a stage adaptation of the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that was first performed at Ludlowe and has gone on to become very successful across the United States.
In “Fake News” — which, despite its political connotations, Landry said is not about the sitting president — Landry toyed with the conventions of narrative, developing a script that bounced from one decade in 20th century American history to the next with each scene.
“The structure of the piece is very layered, and very meta, you might say. The premise is that you, as the audience, are witnessing a performance-based assessment by a media studies class here at Fairfield Ludlowe High School,” the 46-year-old said.
The piece heavily incorporates audio and visual effects, including projected images at the back of the stage and on the ceiling at points in the play, and sound effects generated by crew stationed in the aisles during the show, all of which Geckeler, a 16-year-old junior, is working to oversee.
An extension of the theater’s stage juts out into the audience, bringing the actors into close contact with the audience. The actors, however, have more than just the freedom to move around the large, interactive stage. Landry asked each actor to develop aspects of his or her personality, based on parameters and archetypes he set.
“We have to dip into our abilities as actors to make our characters seem believable. It’s a 2D sketch that we were given and we have to make that 3D,” said Dayton, a 16-year-old junior who plays “Robin.”
Dayton said she’s much nicer in real life than her character. Within Landry’s framework, she, Marrelli and Gervais engineered a love triangle.
To varying degrees, the actors allowed aspects of their respective personalities to seep in.
“For me it’s pretty much the same person,” said Marrelli, a 16-year-old junior playing “Wyatt.” “There are certain aspects — ‘Wyatt’ is much more of a hipster. More of a teacher’s pet kind of student. It isn’t exactly me, but the way I speak, the way I hold myself is exactly the same.”
For Aldrich, a 17-year-old senior and first-time actress, her character had unique interests and required extensive research.
“My character is really into musical theater so I had to do a lot of research on that,” Aldrich said.
Landry, in his first go directing teenagers, said he was pleasantly surprised by the students’ commitment, and the school’s willingness for him to take chances and break with the norms of high school theater.
“You don’t see this sort of thing at a high school very much,” Landry said.
As a result of the plays unconventional nature, the students are excited to see how the crowd will respond.
“This play has literally no boundaries. The stage is coming toward the audience, there’s visuals where we’re interacting with the audience,” Gervais said. “So it’s terrifying to do that the first time. The audience could love the fact that there’s less structure and more freedom.”
“Or they could hate that. Who knows?” Dayton added.