Late last week, Megan Emanuel sat in Brookville High School’s theater, staring up at the brightly colored set for their latest production, “Seussical the Musical.”
The backdrop features rolling green hills, light blue skies and touches that come straight out of Dr. Seuss books — giant flowers you might recognize from “The Lorax;” rounded, whimsical buildings from “Horton Hears a Who,” the main storyline in “Seussical;” and book spines featuring some of the actual titles themselves.
“I told the freshmen, ‘This is the coolest set you’ll have in high school,” Emanuel said, laughing.
It’s a long way from “Pirates of Penzance Jr.,” the first musical Emanuel, a 1997 Brookville graduate, led at the high school during the spring of 2008.
“We literally had a rock onstage,” she said. “It was a papier-mâché rock we created. [And] we got all our costumes from Lynchburg College.”
“To sit back and see what we’ve become …” she added, not finishing the thought. “But you have to start somewhere.”
For Brookville Theatre, that start came in 2007, when then-principal, the late Jim Whorley, called Emanuel into his office and asked her to take over the theater program.
Or, perhaps more accurately, build it from the ground up.
“It was not really a program,” Emanuel said. “It was more in-class [work].”
Daryl Knott, Brookville’s longtime former choral teacher, had been at the school for about two decades when Emanuel took over the program. Until that point, she said, they’d only done two musicals.
“She came to me and said, ‘We really need to do something. Do you want to do musicals?’” said Knott, who retired last year. “I said, ‘I’ve been dying to do musicals. … It’s one of my loves.’”
Knott had already been laying the groundwork in her music classes.
“As a chorus teacher, I didn’t do just straight singing. I did some skit work. I did some play work,” she said. “So I could see kids who did the acting part as well, who were dancers. I could tell her, ‘This kid is a really good dancer.’”
Emanuel minored in theater at Lynchburg College but always had more of a dance focus (she’s been director of LC’s Dance Works for 13 years). And during her time at Brookville, she actually took music classes from Knott.
“She was in music at Brookville with me until she graduated,” Knott said. “She never did theater, either, which is kind of cool. She didn’t do theater at the high school because there wasn’t really theater to do. She had the choreography background. She never really got into dramatics until she got out in the world and started doing stuff with Lynchburg College as a choreographer.”
Knott called that first production of “Pirates” a success, and a preview of what was to come.
“It was just me and the piano, and she did great choreography and the kids acted well. It was a great success at that point, because nobody had seen anything there like that.”
They did one production a year for the first several years, Emanuel said, as she recruited more students into the program. “Pirates” featured 25 in the cast and crew, a number that’s grown to as many as 100, in December’s production of “Hairspray.”
For the majority of the last 10 years, Emanuel continued teaching a few English classes in addition to theater.
Now in her third year of full-time theater, she teaches five classes: Theater 1 and 2, Tech Theater 1 and 2 and Advanced Acting.
“It’s theater all day,” she said. “That has allowed us to expand.”
Introducing the technical theater classes two years ago also made a big difference, allowing for in-class time to build and paint sets.
Last year, they also added a theater program at the middle school, which will feed into the high school. The Brookville Middle Drama Club meets once a week and, after “Seussical” closes this weekend, Emanuel’s attention will turn to their production of “Schoolhouse Rock Live,” set for mid-May.
Senior Hurst Templeton, who is starring as the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical,” first appeared on the Brookville High School stage as a Von Trapp child in “The Sound of Music” when he was in sixth grade, before the middle school had an official program.
By eighth grade, he had a starring role in “Guys & Dolls” and says getting involved at an early age made a difference for him — “just [to] feel welcomed by all these high schoolers, who I wanted to be.”
Now he and the program’s other upperclassmen are returning the favor; Emanuel said many of them are involved behind the scenes in “Schoolhouse Rock.”
In addition to an annual spring musical, the high school program also produces a dinner theater show every year and organizes Brookville’s Got Talent and Miss Brookville, both of which act as fundraisers for the program. They also produce one-act competition pieces for the Virginia Theatre Association (VTA) conference and other state festivals; this fall, Brookville’s tech and improv teams won third place at VTA’s conference in Norfolk.
“Every year, she’s done more,” Knott said. “… We don’t have a big auditorium. We don’t have a big stage, so there’s only so much you can do. But she’s added more people. She’s added more costuming. … The kids have been phenomenal, just getting involved.”
Knott said she feels like the program is on the cusp of a new horizon.
“The new chorus teacher has jumped in and been great, I think, at helping to transition to these new shows.”
Emanuel chose to do two musicals this year — “Hairspray” and “Seussical” — to highlight her current crop of seniors, some of whom, like Templeton, started appearing in shows while they were in middle school and have been mentored by Emanuel.
“I’ve known her almost half my life,” Templeton said. “… It’s crazy to see the amount of people who are coming in and have an interest and who are coming to see our shows.”
After years of doing classic musicals like “Annie,” “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady,” Emanuel said they were ready for something more contemporary this year.
“We just wanted to do fun, lively,” she said.
She also liked their underlying messages.
“Seussical,” which opens tonight, begins with a child finding a hat, out of which pops Templeton’s Cat, Emanuel said. He then relays the story of Horton the elephant, who discovers a speck of dust that’s home to an entire world of Whos and sets out to protect the Whos from those who don’t believe in their existence because they can’t be seen.
“I feel like this is just a really nice message, that nobody is alone, and be yourself. Be who you are,” Emanuel said. “… And use your imagination.”