NOT ALL AMERICANS are accustomed to bracing for storms where power- and waterlines may be down for months. But in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, occasional severe hurricanes (called typhoons in the South Pacific) are a given. “We have water pumps. We are stocked and ready. We know when a typhoon is coming. We watch it come in,” said Harold Easton, chapter director of Thespians of the Western Pacific Islands.

When Super Typhoon Yutu (equivalent to a category 5 hurricane) hit his island of Saipan on October 25, Easton had never felt more grateful for the cement walls of his home. Some of his students rode out the storm huddled in bathrooms, as Yutu blasted the island with sustained winds of 180 miles per hour and gusts topping 210 m.p.h.

Even by Northern Marianas standards, Yutu was ferocious. But Easton, his chapter’s troupe directors, and their students were unflappable, refusing to let the storm disrupt their Thespian activities. Although their schools were closed for more than a month, Thespians of the Western Pacific Islands met for their third regional competition of the 2018-19 school year just nine days after enduring the strongest storm to hit U.S. territory since 1935.

“This storm was excessive,” Easton conceded, “but we did what we do. We adapted. We made it work.” Their November 3 competition was held as scheduled at the Northern Marianas International School (home to Junior Thespian Troupe 88805), which was running on diesel power. Given that some competitors displaced by the storm had lost their clothes, Easton relaxed the all-black dress code. More recently, when the Junior Thespians competed in January at Dandan Middle School, only eight rooms were available for the competition. The rest had been condemned. Still, Easton never entertained the idea of canceling or even postponing these events. “Stopping was not an option,” he said. “We simply refused to cooperate with Yutu.”

Saipan’s Marianas High School (where Easton teaches theatre, speech, and debate) incurred enough damage to close for more than two months. Then from early January until mid-February, its students attended only half-days in the afternoon, so students from nearby Hopwood Middle School could use the facilities in the morning while their school was repaired.

Marianas High School’s theatre, a metal building constructed by the U.S. military in the 1960s, was effectively destroyed. “The wind got into the air conditioning, and it just peeled away the entire right side of the building,” said Easton. His theatre courses have since been meeting in regular classrooms.

The southern part of the island was hit hardest. When Dramatics spoke with Easton in late January, some Thespians in southern Saipan who had lost their homes were still living in FEMA tents. Others had left the island to stay with relatives on the mainland U.S. or Guam. “Physically, the students are fine. There were varying degrees of trauma, but they all want to get back into a routine, doing their activities.”

When Yutu hit, some students did go into a new kind of high gear, including Jefferson Cunanan, a junior in the glee club Rhythm ’N Harmony, which competes in the group musical category at regional Thespian competitions. No stranger to responsibility, Cunanan serves as president of both Thespian Troupe 5374 at Marianas High School and his school’s band club. “Typhoon Yutu really turned my life 180 degrees,” he said. “Suddenly, I had so much weight on my shoulders. I took on many more responsibilities at home, for instance, driving to get water and gasoline almost every day.”

Despite the pressures of his family’s post-disaster survival, Cunanan felt “worried sick over my fellow Thespians and bandmates,” he said. “It made me anxious thinking that my fellow Thespians might not be able to compete and that my school’s band wouldn’t be able to travel for competition because of Typhoon Yutu.”

During the recovery, Thespians in Rhythm ’N Harmony traveled to schools and other venues to perform for younger children in their communities. Having lost their practice space, the 16-student group relocated rehearsals to a student’s apartment. As power returned to the island and schools began reopening, Cunanan welcomed the familiar academic and dramatic expectations: preparing for the island’s next regional competition as well as producing and directing a production of The Audition by Don Zolidis.

“The International Thespian Society is just the most amazing and safest place to be,” Cunanan said. “You are surrounded by people who are so in love with theatre and everything about it. It’s a place where people can freely express themselves and not be afraid to be an absolute geek or fangirl, to talk about a musical they found out about or a play they just watched.”

Nina Lauren F. Valdisimo, a Thespian in Troupe 6448 at Kagman High School, also found comfort in her fellow Thespians of the Western Pacific Islands, as well as in her craft. There was devastating damage to her home and neighborhood, but despite this, she competed in the November Thespian competition at NMIS with two monologues by Lindsay Price. “Competitions helped to distract me from the stress and anxiety I felt after the typhoon, even if just for a little while,” Valdisimo said. “I believe that drama has brought light to many who are struggling. As a member of ITS, I was not only hit with the harsh reality of the world around me but also brought to a world full of imagination.”

In addition to their demanding competition schedule and school productions, some Marianas Thespians are involved with community theatre such as Saipan’s Friends of the Arts productions. Easton is quick to point out that when that organization postponed its November opening of Peter Pan until February, due to venue damage and other storm-related technical difficulties, his students continued rehearsals in the home of Kagman High School teacher Dave Bucher, who often coaches and adjudicates for Thespian activities across Saipan.

“Rehearsing, competing, doing excellent work — it’s just what we do. What helps more than anything after something like this is just getting back into routine, getting the schedule back, doing your activities,” Easton said. “Going back to the Greeks, you have 2,500 years of history in this tradition. Getting onstage, performing for an audience — there’s a good deal of structure built into this art that people have been doing for thousands of years.”

This story appeared in the April 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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