Image courtesy of Susan Kalina
Image courtesy of Susan Kalina

Why Students in the Musical Deserve PE Waivers

Deerfield’s fall musical Mean Girls has seen nothing but success this year. The show sold out its Friday and Saturday performances and was recently selected to perform at the 2024 Illinois High School Theatre Festival. This achievement is not an understatement; not only was Deerfield’s Mean Girls selected out of a field of over 30 different schools, but the festival has also designated the show to be its featured Friday night performance. Putting on a show with a spectacle as great as Mean Girls cannot be done without intense preparation. Members of the show like myself worked strenuous hours during tech rehearsals to bring the show to life. Those participating in the show face the daunting task of managing their personal health, grades, and jobs in the show during a time of high stress. This usually places students behind on assignments, and unprepared for the school day throughout Tech Week’s duration. However, District 113 needs to recognize a solution that would allow students to stay as stress-free as possible during the immense preparation leading up to the show.

This solution is simple: those who participate in the show, and meet all the standard requirements students normally need to receive a PE waiver, should be given a gym exemption during Tech Week. This without a doubt will allow students an extra chance to get ahead on work and assignments, and not have to send that nervous email asking for an extension. The district needs to acknowledge the commitment of being a part of the musical the same way it acknowledges varsity sports. Like athletes, technicians, performers, and musicians should be given extra time during the school day to keep those in the show up to date on work. This ensures that those in the musical can be better equipped during a period as stressful as Tech Week.

One cannot underestimate the toll Tech Week takes on those participating in the musical. Mean Girls was especially difficult as the show features many elaborate transitions and moving pieces, requiring the cast and crew to shift set pieces in the middle of song and dance numbers. Because the show was so fast-paced, it required little room for error. Putting such a difficult show together meant that members of the show needed to devote 100% effort, from the time we got to rehearsals to nearly at night in the weeks leading up to the show. Deerprints sent out a survey to those who participated in the musical, and out of the 43 students who responded, 87% said they slept at least three hours less per day during Tech Week. If even a single hour could be used into a waivered period, it would ensure that students in the musical are coming to class not only with finished assignments but with the sleep and energy necessary to learn effectively. Without this system in place, students are left making a choice: come to class prepared, or come to class exhausted.

In spite of this, many administrators may look towards another solution to the lack of sleep and preparation for class that comes with Tech Week: Why don’t we just make tech hours shorter? If Tech Week is stressing students out due less time to work on assignments, why have students rehearse this long? However, in making this assertion, school policymakers are saying that to make students less stressed during tech week, they should be less prepared for the show. In such a fast-paced environment, poise is everything. A better-prepared and more rehearsed show would make it so students can go into their performances with more confidence than they would if Tech Week rehearsal time was shortened. If Deerfield’s theatre program is to continue to represent our school with achievements (i.e.; performing our show for the Theatre Festival) our company does not just need to be more prepared on stage; we need to be more prepared in the classroom as well.

Tech week doesn’t just come with high amounts of stress, it is also physically demanding. Stage Manager Charlie O’Connor told Deerprints that “The school should understand the physical commitment and strain that goes into productions such as heavy lifting and constant dancing.” Cast member Jackson Santi felt similarly, telling Deerprints that “Tech week is very active, actors are dancing and singing and fighting on stage which takes incredible breath control; [the] crew is always moving quickly and lifting heavy things.” As the show’s technical head of sound, I was asked to constantly hustle up and down stairs to check audio equipment. On the first day of Tech Week, I had to carry and unpack road cases full of expensive gear in order to get the show ready to go. One cannot argue that there is not at least some bit of physical ability required to make it through tech week.

To those who believe varsity sports require far more physical effort than the musical, I ask you to give one day of tech rehearsal a try. School administrators need to realize that the musical requires its company to physically exert themselves even more than some sports and activities that are given gym exemptions. As a theatre technician and member of the varsity golf team, I can wholeheartedly say that being a part of a cast, crew, or pit for a musical is a much greater physical challenge than my sport. Yet, it was the latter of these two activities where I was granted an exemption from PE. I am not trying to argue that being an actor, musician, or technician is harder than being the starting quarterback, nor that varsity athletes aren’t already deserving of a waiver. Rather, I would like school policymakers to be aware of the fact that there is some level of physical effort that goes into putting on a musical. If I can get a waiver for golf, my peers in the musical should be able to get a waiver during Tech Week.

For our academic community to actually break ground on this, we need to have wholehearted discussions with one another. Cast member Shaina Wolkenberg told Deerprints, “In a public high school full of kids who are involved in a myriad of activities, it is [teachers’] obligation to support their students in endeavors beyond their subject—that goes for academic and arts teachers. The only way to do that is by communicating. And communicating truthfully, effectively, and continuously… To the adults at Deerfield who have shown me repeatedly that they would rather sacrifice my well-being for the sake of their opinions and priorities than show me flexibility and support, I urge you to consider your student’s lives and the many things they are bringing to the world outside of your space.” These sentiments shed light on the importance of the connection between Deerfield’s students, teachers, and community. Getting together to at least talk things out, whether it be formally or informally, is truly for the better. I believe that genuine communication and flexibility is the best route in helping our theatre program reach its highest creative potential.

Artists are not like athletes. We cannot be the undisputed champ of theatre. We cannot win gold. We cannot come in first. Sports are objective, theatre is subjective. Therefore, creating to ‘be the best’ is a waste of energy. Instead, we create to bring together our community. We take on challenges like performing at the Illinois High School Theatre Festival not to prove our strengths or talents as individuals, but to prove our strengths and talents as a collective. If the success of Mean Girls–despite the long hours and intense preparation–tells us anything, it is that the members of Deerfield’s theatre program carry the skills needed to block out stress, and make beautiful art. Because of this, it is only more beneficial for the program if students could be given a waiver period in the days leading up to the show. To dampen even a tiny bit of stress during Tech Week is not just in the interest of myself and others in the show, it is in the interest of teachers as well. With PE waivers during Tech Week, imagine how much more magic DHS Theatre would be able to create.


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