Steamboat Springs It's less than a week before the "Secrets" production is set to hit the stage, and illnesses have reduced Thursday's rehearsal from a cast of five to three performers.
Sitting beneath the bright spotlights of the Steamboat Springs High School theater's stage, sophomore Kayla Murphy and junior Kaitlin Gallagher discuss sex, contraceptives and AIDS.
Drama teacher Stuart Handloff watches from the side of the stage, where he helps the two performers work through a scene.
The cast will perform "Secrets" for its fellow high school students Wednesday.
Even though the cast hasn't had a full rehearsal in more than a week, Handloff doesn't let his concerns overwhelm him. In theater, production problems often have a way of working themselves out, even if the cost is a few sleepless nights. Through the years, Handloff has learned how fruitless -- if not inevitable -- worrying can be.
"It's always one of those things that keeps you up at night," he said. "I always plan contingencies in case we get caught off guard, but it's nothing I want to think about."
Now standing and rotating back and forth, Murphy, Gallagher and fellow "Secrets" cast member Bethany Pugh rehearse another scene.
They practice monologues, staring out into the darkness of the unlit theater and its empty seats. Handloff provides bits of advice here and there, but the interaction is more colleague-to-colleague than teacher-to-student.
And therein lies the democracy of the theater, as Handloff puts it.
"They know they're all working together, and nobody is more valuable than anyone else," Handloff said.
That rule applies to everyone, from the lead-role actor to the sound technicians and the make-up artists.
"Secrets" is a bare-bones performance that doesn't require the technicians and backstage help involved in many of the drama department's productions. Last year's show, "The Wizard of Oz," for example, involved nearly 120 performers, technicians and parents.
But regardless of the production's size, the amount of work that goes into each one is astounding.
Eight weeks of rehearsal usually accompany each production. Within those eight weeks, performers typically rehearse four days a week for two hours at a time.
All said, more than 150 hours of rehearsal and preparation are devoted to each of the department's productions.
All the hard work culminates in a series of performances. Once the performances are done, the show disappears like a one-night circus, and the department shifts focus to its next production.
"It's like a small corporation that you run for 10 weeks," Handloff said. "Then, one night, it closes down and you're out of business."
Fortunately for Handloff and his theater participants, a new business is always right around the corner.
In a typical year, the department puts on four shows. The two largest productions usually run in the spring and fall.
Despite the hectic schedules of the high school students, Handloff said he's consistently impressed with the caliber of their productions.
In fact, the fall production of "In the Woods" was better than any production Handloff's been a part of, he said.
"It's incredible what they do," Handloff said. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of commitment. With sports and other extracurricular activities, it's really impressive what high school kids do."
More and more students are taking an interest in drama, he said.
Senior Amanda Leftwich, captain of the high school lacrosse team, started working with the drama department last year when she performed in the "The Wizard of Oz."
Leftwich found she preferred working backstage to performing on it.
"It's fun to be behind the scenes," she said. "I like working with the actors because they're always so positive and they love the way you help them."
Sophomore Chris Ruff is a hockey player who became involved in drama because he thought it would be a cool elective.
"I love it. I like to be in front of people," Ruff said. "Acting is extremely fun for me and opens a lot of opportunities."
Ruff has the lead role in "Secrets," a character named Eddie who contracts the HIV virus.
The drama department has performed "Secrets" almost every year for the past decade, and Handloff said the importance of its message will keep the production going every year. "Secrets" speaks to the seriousness of HIV and AIDS and discusses ways for individuals to protect themselves and others.
"It's way too critical to drop," he said. "This show saves lives. If one person protects themselves better than they did before the show, then we've saved a life. It doesn't get better than that."
No matter how awkward it might be for high school students to talk about sex and contraceptives in front of each other, the message needs to get out, Ruff said.
"I believe we need to talk about this stuff," Ruff said. "That need makes it important. I think it's necessary."