Steamboat Springs High School drama teacher Stuart Handloff put it off for years. Principal Dave Schmid had seen "Children of a Lesser God" on stage at another high school, and he wanted to see it here. Handloff resisted.
The play is difficult even for professional actors, and a cast of only seven actors seemed too exclusive for a high school drama program. But after staging "The Sound of Music" with a cast of almost 100 students and an accessible script, Handloff decided this was the year to challenge his actors and the audience.
He knows the audience will be smaller than usual for a high school play, but after seeing what his actors did with the script, he says it's a sacrifice worth making.
"This isn't the kind of play where you can bring the whole family," Handloff said. "There is nothing 'feel good' about this play. It makes you think and it hurts sometimes."
Because the audience will be small and the play is powerful, stage designers added a walkway onto the front of the stage that thrusts into the audience, creating the intimate atmosphere of a black-box theater. Two-thirds of the action takes place on the walkway.
It's an in-your-face approach to a play that rarely sees the high school stage.
"Children of a Lesser God", written by Mark Medoff, takes place in the mind of James Leeds (played by junior Chris Ruff) who is hired as a speech therapist at a school for the deaf. His job is to teach deaf people to speak so they can be assimilated into the hearing world. His biggest challenge comes when he meets Sarah Norman (played by senior Rory Clow), who refuses to communicate except through sign language.
"James is idealistic," Ruff said. "He is straight out of the Peace Corps where he learned a lot, but he didn't learn enough. By the end of the play, he learns a lot about what the world is really like."
"Children of a Lesser God" explores the struggles between the deaf and the hearing world, but it's about something even bigger, Handloff said. "It's about what it means to accept diversity.
"Do you only accept the deaf if they pretend to be hearing? Do you only accept a black person if they pretend to be white or a gay person if they pretend to be straight? This play asks those big questions."
Not only did the high school students take on a play that explores tough issues, they had to learn a new language (American Sign Language) and try to understand deaf culture to play their parts.
To that end, five members of the cast traveled to East High School, which serves deaf and hearing-impaired students in Denver.
They spent an afternoon with deaf students their age asking questions and watching closely.
In his notes, Medoff insisted the parts of the three deaf characters be performed by deaf or hearing-impaired actors, but that wasn't an option within the SSHS drama department. Instead, Handloff chose Clow to play Sarah, senior Cody Badaracca to play a deaf "radical" named Orin Dennis and sophomore Christina Crotz to play a deaf student named Lydia.
As Sarah, Clow has only one speaking line in the play. The rest, she signs.
Handloff knew he would choose Clow to play the part of Sarah as soon as he read the script.
"Since her first audition when she was a freshman, I saw that Rory has this charming naivete about her," Handloff said. "I knew that someday there would be a perfect part for her. This is it. Sarah is so vulnerable and invulnerable at the same time. It's easy for teenagers to act invulnerable, but vulnerability is more difficult."
Clow learned some of the subtleties of playing Sarah from her visit to East High School.
"There were six deaf kids in the room and five of us," she said. "We were outnumbered. When someone was laughing and signing in that room, we thought they were laughing and talking about us. They told us that's how they feel all the time."
Back in Steamboat, the cast members spent a school day wearing earplugs and headphones to simulate the deaf experience.
"They learned what it was like to be a minority," Handloff said. "We had a debriefing afterward, and some of the kids thought their best friends ignored them. They saw a lot of things that day."
Junior Keaton Covillo, who plays the deaf school's principal, Mr. Franklin, wore the headphones that day even though his character is a hearing person.
"There's a line where Rory says that being deaf is a silence full of sound," Covillo said. "(Since we started this play) I've thought a lot about what that must be like."