Putting on a play of any size is a challenge because there are so many parts to the production. From actors to backstage crew to set design to various other aspects, a school play is an exhausting yet exhilarating experience.
Last week, Farmington High School Theater Director Diana Mays-Nielson was immersed in preparations for “Little Shop of Horrors.” In between practices and completing numerous tasks for the play, she had been experiencing what were at first mild symptoms of headaches and some dizziness.
She went to several appointments with her doctor to treat what they thought was severe fluid on her ears, sinus infections and more. But the headaches kept returning. After making an appointment with an ENT who could not find anything wrong with her ears or sinuses, she underwent an MRI.
That’s when the tumors were discovered.
Mays-Nielson went to her initial consultation with a doctor at Washington University who immediately admitted her to the hospital. After more tests and scans, she had brain surgery last Friday to remove the largest tumor.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” she said.
Mays-Nielson’s husband Brandon is tech director for the play, so this meant the two were suddenly both out of the production.
“Like most shows, we still had last-minute things to finish and tech runs,” she said.
Thankfully, many colleagues, friends, students and parents have stepped in to help. Claire Naes, musical director for productions, took over the role as main director. Her good friend Chuck Gallaher, MAC’s theater director, dropped everything to finish the show’s set and assist with tech-related items. Her friend Kim Zustiak, theater teacher at Seckman, traveled to Farmington several times to assist FHS junior Cassie Widdows, stage manager for the production, to get the cues correct for sound and lights.
Students and parents have painted set pieces. Mays-Nielson’s son assisted Gallaher with set building.
“It’s really been a group effort,” said Mays-Nielson, “and I’m so thankful for all of them. I haven’t had to worry about any of that.”
Opening night for “Little Shop of Horrors” is Thursday at 7 p.m. Other shows are Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 each for general admission at Truman Theater, 209 W. College Street in Farmington.
Mays-Nielson has been a full-time teacher in the English department at FHS for 13 years. She took on the role of theater director in 2016.
She held virtual auditions for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” in December, but not enough males auditioned for roles. So, she went with her back-up plan for “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“This production is smaller, easier to manage with COVID protocols, and could be cast from those who already auditioned,” she said.
Most plays take about a year of planning and preparation by the Mays-Nielson and her husband. They are constantly on the lookout for props, set pieces, costumes and more.
The current play was a bit different since they did not have enough males audition. They had already been thinking about the show as an alternative but “really ramped up the design and decision process once we realized it would be the show.”
She said everything fell into place much easier than expected.
The cast and crew have been in rehearsals Monday through Friday for about 10 weeks.
Although it’s not her favorite, the play is one that she has always loved.
“I love the juxtaposition of campy, ridiculous flesh-eating plant and the dark undertones of domestic abuse,” she said. "It’s an interesting way to bring light to a serious topic through the use of humor.”
She said she finds herself laughing at it and then catches herself saying, “Wait, that isn’t really a funny thing to say or do.”
Her favorite scene is Suddenly Seymour when Audrey, played by Katie Orr, realizes there is a nice guy out there for her.
“Musically, it’s a powerful song and Katie nails it every night,” said Mays-Nielson. “Thematically, it adds to the juxtaposition of what constitutes a ‘good’ guy. Seymour is great in so many ways but maybe not that great.”
Widdows, a junior at FHS, is stage manager for the production. She has been a member of the school’s theater guild since her freshman year and has had various roles in numerous productions.
For “Little Shop of Horrors,” Widdows went a different route off stage as stage manager.
One of the things she most enjoys about theater is that it’s not simply a club but a family.
Several teachers, family of the cast and crew, and friends of Mays-Nielson have been working to keep the show afloat.
“Putting on this production without Mrs. Mays-Nielson has been very difficult emotionally and technically,” she said. “However, every day her strength and perseverance inspires us all to make this one of the best musicals produced by our school.”
Widdows expressed her sincere appreciation to everyone who has helped with this show. She added a special note regarding Mays-Nielson’s husband Brandon.
“The theater kids really appreciate all of his hard work and dedication to our play,” she said. “We are so grateful for him and how he’s really stepped up.”
Parker Shinn, an 11th grader at FHS, has been in several previous productions. He enjoys working with the people.
Shinn said although this may not be one of the theater group’s typical performances, “A lot of hard work and sacrifice have gone into making it as best as possible.”
He said if it wasn’t for Mrs. Mays-Nielson, he would have never gone to FHS. He met her during eighth-grade tours of the building when he was planning to attend a different high school.
“However, her kindness and sincerity are what made me even consider coming to this school,” said Shinn. “Ever since then, I’ve participated in every show she’s done and had the honor of having her as a teacher.”
Shinn said Mays-Nielson has changed his life not only as an instructor but also as a role model for what he strives to be.
“I consider myself lucky to have gotten the opportunity to know Mrs. Mays-Nielson,” he said.
Senior Madeline Joyce has not done theater before this year. She has enjoyed creating relationships with others while transforming into her character.
She said her director’s experience has affected her and the cast because it has stirred up a new wave of emotions.
“For awhile, we all felt like we were scrambling to complete this huge task,” she said. “But we were instantly surrounded and supported by others in the community.”
Joyce said the group’s stressors “transformed into this beautiful masterpiece that I could not be more proud of. I know we all feel a much deeper appreciation for Mrs. Mays-Nielson and everything she does for us.”
She concluded, “This has truly been an eye-opening experience.”
Senior Katie Orr is playing the role of Audrey.
Orr has been in numerous performances at FHS. In addition, she is president of FHS Theatre Guild and vice president of International Thespians Society.
She said she enjoys every aspect of each play.
“I get the biggest adrenaline rush when I’m performing,” she said. “It’s pretty addicting!”
She said her favorite part of the plays is always working with the people involved and the bonds they create together with the cast and crew. They also genuinely have fun together.
“I want people to know how much time and energy have gone into this production,” said Orr. “We only had a little over two months of rehearsals, and we were snowed out for almost two weeks.”
She said the pandemic added additional struggles.
“Nonetheless, the cast and crew rose to the occasion, and I think that this is one of the best productions I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “I’m so excited for everyone to see it!”
Orr especially enjoys the music because all the songs are “super catchy and are constantly stuck in my head.”
When the cast and crew found out about Mays-Nielson’s brain tumors, they were in complete shock.
“The news hit me like a bus,” said Orr. “Especially this year, we’ve become very close.”
She said their phenomenal cast and crew have really risen to the occasion.
“We’ve also had some amazing theater people spearheading the production,” said Orr. “Chuck Gallaher, the theater director at MAC, put his own show ‘Godspell’ on hold to help us with the set and lighting.”
She also credited Mays-Nielson’s best friend Kim Zustiak and Claire Naes for their assistance.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve become a tight-knit family and I couldn’t be more proud of the show we’ve put together,” said Orr.
The cast includes Audrey (Katie Orr); Seymour Krelborn (Wyatt Bach), Mr. Mushnik (Justin Gratton), Orin Scrivello (Van Kleppe), Audrey II (Aaron Bryan), Crystal (Abby Hogan), Ronette (Madeline Joyce), Chiffon (Rachel Deidiker), Patrick Martin (Jonah Hagerty), and Swings (Jonah Hagerty, Van Kleppe, Claire Parmer, Taylor Matthiesen and Elayna Copeland).
Dr. Ashley Krause will make an appearance in the Sunday matinee as Mrs. Luice.
Tech and backstage crew members include Parker Shinn, assistant director; Cassie Widdows, stage manager; Makiah Wyatt, assistant stage manager; Nathan McCarthy, Alana Masters and Amanda Ropers, costumes; Makiah Wyatt and Abrianna Owens, makeup; Jena Adams, Libby Hahn and Ryan Johnson, props; Jackson Umfleet and Ryan Johnson, plant wranglers; Kai Peck, sound; Gracyn Pratt and Trent Galczynski, mics; Alton Medlin, lights; Meagan Denkler, front of house; Claire Naes, music director; Brandon Nielson, tech director; Madeline Joyce and Rachel Deidiker, choreographers; and Issack Hallock, Elliot Naes, Dietrich Plyler and Claire Naes, pit orchestra.
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal