Curtains Up, Lights Dim for Gas Light
Harpswell Coastal Academy debuts its first political theater performance
In an era when allegations of fake news occupy the headlines, “gaslighting” can feel like a sport. For Lee Rose, director of the new political theater program at Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA), the play Gaslight was a deliberate choice for the times — and a script that lends itself to a minimalist stage. This 1938 thriller, set in the Victorian era, spins a dark tale of a marriage based on deception and trickery. It played on Broadway and was later developed for the screen, with the American film version nominated for seven Academy Awards.
“Advertising and fake news are gaslighting,” says Rose. “Lawyers gaslight, politicians gaslight — I want students and the audience to recognize when theatrical elements are being used in the real world to essentially gaslight people.
“Students often said they recognized the characters, that the play represented what happens in real life,” Rose adds. “It can be easier to deal with a character’s issues rather than your own. Sometimes you can’t see what’s happening when you’re in a situation; theater provides an objective view.”
In addition to directing the theater program at the University of Maine at Machias and other institutions, Rose has been awarded numerous grants and facilitated student performances that highlight Maine’s history, such as one based on oral history research with Maine elders.With his breadth of teaching, directing, playwriting, and acting experience, Rose ambitiously planned to stage a production during his first trimester, which meant curtains up in record time. As someone who has appeared on stage as well as in television, film, and music videos, and directed and stage managed Off-Broadway plays, he welcomed the challenge of introducing his classes to acting and production while staging a play in under three months — classes launched in September and Gas Light took center stage with November performances at HCA’s Brunswick campus.
Students who were reluctant to step into the limelight volunteered for set building or technical duties. In the end, Rose estimates, nearly half the school was involved. “These kids didn’t realize until now how important their skills are,” says Rose. “No role is more important than another. The people onstage would be invisible if it weren’t for the people behind the stage.”
Maja, a 10th grade exchange student from Denmark, handled publicity — everything from overseeing poster design to media promotion: “I do a lot of social media and like creative subjects, but I didn’t want the pressure of being onstage or in charge of lights.” The self-professed procrastinator rallied to the task, which she attributes to Rose’s enthusiasm and not wanting to disappoint him or her classmates. “I learned that I can’t do this alone. If people do a good job alone but not together the play won’t be as great.”
Her takeaway echoes certain lessons Rose hoped to impart. “No task is too big to complete if you break it down and take it one step at a time,” says Rose. “HCA’s mission is a perfect laboratory for project management and the concept of collaboration.”
Addie, an HCA senior with an acting background and entertainment career aspirations, found Rose’s industry experience and teaching style invaluable. “He gives us advice and prepares us for the real world,” she says. “He has high expectations but he also understands that we are kids.
“If something isn’t working, we change it,” Addie explains. “At other schools there might not be any discussion about how to do something — it’s only what the director says. Lee really likes to hear other perspectives and encourages us to think big — the sky is the limit.”
For the next act? A sound and lightscape production of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s 1938 radio dramatization of a Martian invasion of Earth. Rose hopes it will be HCA’s ticket to this spring’s Maine Drama Festival, an annual one-act play competition for thousands of high school students where winners advance to a statewide battle of the bards.