The students of the Hazen High School theater troupe in Renton recently wrapped up their year by putting on a production in an empty theater.

Their final production, a staged reading series of radio plays, was filmed by a single camera in the auditorium, and launched via YouTube. While the actors were costumed and the fictional “KHZN” set was replete with old-school microphones and a dial radio for that in-studio effect, the reactions of a crowd were noticeably absent.

There were no cackles to encourage seniors Will Barber (as Abbott) and Asher Abolafya (as Costello) in their rendition of the fast-pitch comedy routine, “Who’s on First?” No gasps during “Murder of Mrs. Brooks” and the other Five-Minute Mysteries. No sighs at the gaffes in “Fibber McGee and Molly.” 

Still, it was better than the spring 2020 production, “Just Another High School Play,” for which rehearsals were cut short due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Seniors graduated without having uttered their lines off script or taking that final high school stage bow. 

Going into the current school year, director Brett Crueger thought the drama club might do the radio shows in the fall, then launch a fuller theatrical production for the spring. 

“However, it was far more complex to produce the program than I had originally thought,” he said with a sigh. 

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Crueger has spent 25 years working in schools and 20 teaching and directing school theater. While some leaders of school music, theater and performing arts programs have the knowledge and bandwidth to film and edit high-quality productions over Zoom, Crueger didn’t have the necessary experience. “I’m not a film guy,” he said. 

No student held that against him. Instead, they adapted to their new roles with enthusiasm. 

Hazen High School drama club member Zoey Rustad reads her lines at a June 10 meeting at the school in Renton.  (Courtesy of Cleo Usher)

Crueger typically teaches social studies and drama, but because of remote and hybrid scheduling, he dropped theater this trimester. He lost the chance to bring students physically together to orchestrate stage directions and to learn how to make an embrace, a fight or a frenzy read well from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium. 

Sophomore Skyler Tran played Mrs. Martha Conklin in the comedy “Our Miss Brooks,” but her line doesn’t come until the end of the scene. Because not all students could make the Hazen Players’ virtual rehearsals, Tran would read other characters’ lines, all while remaining static before her computer screen. “It was kind of difficult doing that because you’re trying to play [another] character but you also have to remember your own character’s personality and how you should act,” she said. That was especially challenging when connections dropped or students left the virtual room.

Senior Will Barber missed goofing off and bonding with classmates in the auditorium, but he did recount a memorable moment. Barber, who had a notoriously glitchy internet connection, would often uncensor himself and let out a string of curse words when he got disconnected from a rehearsal. Except for the one time he wasn’t actually offline. Or muted. “That was fun,” he said. 

“It was like, uh, Will, you weren’t disconnected there,” Crueger chuckled. 

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Working on one show over the course of a year deepened the bonds between students and made it feel familial, sophomores Kya Baker and Zoey Rustad said.

“Theater in general is just something really, really special … you can have people from all walks of life with different interests … but we can all come back to this one thing that we really, really enjoy,” Baker said. 

Freshman Hannah Mattson didn’t know what to expect when she joined Hazen Players, but she did remember the “buzz and excitement” she got from doing elementary and middle school shows. 

Logging into the first rehearsal, she said, “I was welcomed with the biggest, wide-open arms.” When she finally got to be in the high school building this spring, she said she felt like she had more friends to support her. 

Crueger said high school theater gives students skills that will last a lifetime. “Public speaking is still a great fear of many people. My students present very well,” he said. 

Theater also gives students something to aspire to, he said. 

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“When Will Barber said the other day that he wants my job, he wasn’t joking. And I can’t imagine anyone else better suited for the gig. I hope he doesn’t change his mind,” Crueger said.

Hazen Players drama club members Fernando Cabrera, left, Sami Hale, Will Barber and Cleo Usher, part of the cast of the radio play “The Thin Man” pose for student Elliot Kelly during a club meeting at Hazen High School in Renton on June 10.  (Courtesy of Elliot Kelly)

But the director said he still has several shows and years left in his career. This summer he’ll oversee a renovation of the 20-year-old, 650-seat high school theater. This fall, he hopes to get students and an audience inside to appreciate the new curtains, light and sound systems. For now, he’s holding off on picking a show until he knows for sure what COVID-19 distancing and other restrictions might be lifted. 

“I’m certainly not planning to do a romantic comedy,” he said. 

The director said he hopes this past year will help all of his students feel prepared to handle whatever comes at them in life. 

“I’ve learned they’re tired of being called ‘resilient.’ They’ve learned a lot about it but they’re ready to move past it,” he said.