This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

WHILE THE SPITFIRE GRILL marks the first ITF main stage invitation for Troupe 4268 of Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, the troupe has presented on the main stage of the Texas State Thespian Festival three times and performed regularly on the event’s Play Marathon stage (similar to the ITF Chapter Select Showcase). Every year since 2014, at least one student from the troupe has won a scholarship at the Texas chapter event, and 75% of its members’ Individual Events presentations have qualified for national competition at what is now called the International Thespian Excellence Awards program, or Thespys™.

Story

After serving prison time, young Percy Talbott hops a cross-country bus to a small rural town she knows only from a photo of stunning autumn trees cut from a donated travel book. Gilead, “a place for leaving, not coming to,” isn’t used to visitors, but with the help of her parole officer, Joe, Percy finds work at the Spitfire Grill, the only diner and guest room in the Wisconsin town, run by the surly matriarch, Hannah.

Working for Hannah, Percy navigates the scoffs of gossipy postmistress, Effy; suspicions of Hannah’s overbearing nephew, Caleb; and tentative kindness from Shelby, Caleb’s timid wife.

After learning the diner’s been up for sale since Hannah was widowed 10 years ago, Percy suggests a nationwide raffle. Contestants pay $100 and write an essay for a chance to win ownership of the grill. As contest essays pour into Gilead by the wheelbarrow, the town’s inhabitants must reckon with secret sorrows, shameful regrets, and a risky road to redemption.

Cast members of Marcus High School's The Spitfire Grill.
Marcus High School Troupe Director Denise Tooch says The Spitfire Grill required maturity both in singing and acting. Photo courtesy of Denise Tooch.

BACKGROUND

Writer-lyricist Fred Alley and writer-composer James Valcq met at a high school music camp in 1980. After collaborating on a piece for Alley’s American Folklore Theatre in Wisconsin in the 1990s, the young theatremakers watched a film by Lee David Zlotoff called The Spitfire Grill.

The movie, which won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, appealed to the pair’s sense of folklore and myth, and in 1999, they began adapting it for the stage. The resulting musical version had its world premiere at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in September 2001.

Tragically, Alley died of a heart attack while jogging in the woods near his Wisconsin home one week before the workshop. That year, the musical won the Richard Rodgers Production Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, selected by a committee chaired by Stephen Sondheim.

The musical version of The Spitfire Grill, which features an alternate ending from the film, has proved an enduring popular success, with more than 600 productions so far in professional and school theatres across the United States and around the world.

TROUPE 4268’S PRODUCTION

When Julia Campopiano found out she earned the role of Hannah in The Spitfire Grill, she said, “I had this amazing feeling wash over me that this wasn’t going to be just another show; it was going to be something special I would remember forever.”

Denise Tooch, Marcus High School theatre director and director of Troupe 4268, said The Spitfire Grill has long been a favorite of hers. “I had simply been waiting for the right group of students in order to produce it. It is a story that requires great maturity both in singing ability and in acting chops.”

This group “certainly has both,” she said. “The entire cast is composed of seniors, and I have worked with these particular kids since they were eighth graders. It seemed appropriate to showcase them in a small but challenging show like this one.”

Annie Clark, a longtime fan of the film who encouraged Tooch’s choice, loved exploring the nuances of her character. “Percy is a wounded, reserved, adventurous person who follows her heart before her head. … She has this fire inside of her that tells her no matter how difficult and dark her life may be, there is always something to live for,” said Clark, who acknowledged the difficulty of delving into trauma, even with fictional character development.

“Portraying a person who has an extremely traumatizing past without hurting yourself is really challenging as an actor. A level of separation needed to be in place.”

Campopiano also had her work cut out for her. Not only did she have to portray a 70-year-old woman, but also one with a mean streak, which didn’t come naturally to the courteous Thespian. “Hannah is a fierce, closed-off, and flawed woman who just wants to be right,” said Campopiano, whose viewpoint — on both Hannah and the show overall — evolved as she “started connecting my own life to Hannah’s. … There were things happening in my personal life that were eating me alive, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything about them besides shut my feelings out. After exploring more of Hannah’s journey, I realized how much we had in common, and I was able to have an outlet to express myself through the show.” Campopiano went on to win a Best Actress Award at the Texas State Thespian Festival for her performance.

Among these seasoned Thespians, Landon Bradley made his acting debut as Caleb Thorpe. Bradley describes himself as “a music guy,” heavily involved in orchestra and choir. He auditioned on the insistence of Assistant Choir Director Drew Howard, who served as accompanist for the show. Bradley recalled being intimidated by both the complexity and vocal range of the Caleb role, as well as the demonstrated talent of Troupe 4268. “The people auditioning had been these theatre giants growing up with me,” he said.

Bradley’s audition song, “Digging Stone,” was “one of the most vocally demanding songs I’ve ever sung, and I’ve done all-state [choir] competitions and National Latin Competitions.” Bradley even hosted pre-audition “Caleb singing workshops” with friends also auditioning for the role “because I could help their singing while they could help my acting.

What Bradley found most difficult was embodying a complicated antagonist with “so much baggage he carries behind the anger. … [He feels like he] can’t be the town hero because he isn’t loved enough or strong enough to carry pain and disappointment.” Bradley recalled crying backstage when “the crowd booed me because I was playing my bad-guy part in, I guess, a believable way,” unable at first to grasp that “they hated Caleb, not me. At that moment, I realized I had a lot of Caleb’s insecurities in me. … It’s these feelings that got me to really connect with Caleb.”

Tooch was impressed by how “impeccably” the music and characters fit the students. “Their voices blended so beautifully in the duets and group numbers,” she said. “The kids took on the personalities of these broken people and raised them up with such grace and integrity.”

The show presented logistical challenges as well. The troupe needed to rehearse during the summer, accommodating vacation and work schedules, while their performance space and scene shop were under construction. “We had to stage most of the show in a side area of the cafeteria at our ninth-grade center, which in no way represented a performance space,” said Tooch.

The construction also delayed the show’s technical build. Senior Thespian lighting designer Andrew Gange did much of his work from home using various software applications. “Some electrics were being redone in the school theatre, so I couldn’t go into the black box and begin hanging [lights] until two weeks prior to the show.”

According to Tooch, Gange’s lighting design helped define both scene changes and time of day. “The set required several locations, but we were limited on space. Defining the interior and exterior of the diner, as well as a bedroom and a hillside required creative use of levels, staging, and design,” said Tooch.

Gange noted that he and Tooch “wanted to use the most vibrant, bold colors throughout the show.” The technical team created several 14-foot birch trees and a cyclorama representing sunrises and sunsets, an element they considered integral to the story. Once they finally built their set, Gange fully appreciated “how impactful the cyclorama is in an intimate space such as a black box.”

According to Tooch, the show’s simplicity was part of its power. “It doesn’t have flashy costumes, scenery, or dance numbers,” she said. “People weren’t expecting to be so moved by seven high school kids telling a story they had never heard of before. … Additionally, watching the actors discover something new to use in every performance was exciting. The show allowed them to explore in a way that larger musicals don’t.”

The emotional script also nurtured powerful bonding. After their final performance, the small cast of seven seniors went to a local diner that reminded them of the fictional Spitfire. “The laughter and smiles that filled the restaurant were a perfect snapshot of what The Spitfire Grill means to me,” said Clark. “Together, we experienced the comforting hospitality of Gilead in its entirety and found a home in each other. I think it’s safe to say this show was the most transformative experience of any production we’ve been a part of.”

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