The Oxford High School Theatre is brimming with talent , stylized production and opportunities for young artists and one of the people who helped the drama department flourish.
John Davenport has taught theatre for just over 20 years at OHS and he has seen the theatre program progress in ways he never imagined with the support of the students, school staff and faculty and the Oxford community.
In 2000, Kentucky-native Davenport was finishing up his theatre degree at the University of Mississippi when he was asked to fill in as a long-term substitute teacher at the OHS Theatre department in the middle of the school year.
“I started in January of 2000 as kind of a fill-in and I really enjoyed it,” said Davenport. “I was trying to finish my last class over there [at the university] and it was really difficult.”
While he was teaching a semester, he was hired at a professional company in Michigan. Although the job provided Davenport with great experience, it was not as fulfilling as he hoped.
“I realized working in Michigan that the reward was not as strong but it was just the job,” he said.
But he soon got his chance to work in a setting that would see the return on his efforts. He recounts a moment with a student he taught the previous year who wanted to take theatre, but decided against it.
“I asked him if he was going to continue theatre classes and he said no,” he said. He was going to take it but when he got here and I wasn’t teaching, he didn’t like it. So he got out of the class.”
Davenport said it was a devastating thing to witness.
“This kid is going to go the rest of his life and not have this opportunity,” he said. “The theatre landscape is going to touch his life. It kind of bothered me that he might not have this opportunity and he might not even be an audience member later in his life.”
That student was at the forefront of his mind when OHS offered Davenport a chance to return to Oxford and help rebuild the theatre program, which he readily agreed to. It was important to Davenport, as well as the school, to restore the program to what it was and help students from all disciplines and interests to get involved.
“I’ve had great, great administrators,” he said. “It may be unusual but I can’t speak for any other district. The administrative aspect of this district has given me nothing but support.”
It was proved when the fine arts department requested a blackbox theatre as the Fine Arts building was being designed, so there would be more space to hold different groups and disciplines in one area like the drama and band department.
“Having the black box theatre eliminates that kind of scheduling nightmare so we can plan in advance around the concert season,” said Davenport. “We’ll do small shows back here while the concert season is going on [in the Mainstage]. We can pull the shell out and leave it for the music department.”
The OHS Theatre recently performed Strangers on a Train, a play based on the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock thriller by the same name, on the Mainstage, which received a Peer Choice Award, All Star Cast Awards for performances by Thomas Dyminski and Emory Barrios, Best Supporting Actress for Millie Greene, and Best Actor for Miles Caradine.
“We’ve had one performance there and we’ve learned that it is very large,” said Davenport. “It’s a learning curve for all of us.”
Currently, the space sits in the aftermath of the high school’s first production in the blackbox, The One-Act Play That Goes Wrong, which is a shorter version of the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Award-winning production The Play That Goes Wrong.
The small theatre can seat up to 90 audience members, but Davenport thinks one day they’ll be able to push it to 124 seats.
“It was going to be a nice teaching tool for my kids,” said Davenport, gesturing out to the space. “Up until now, they haven’t had the experience of having to perform in such an intimate setting. It’s going to be lovely. The folks that came seem to really enjoy the atmosphere.”
The One-Act Play is a story within a story about a cast and crew trying to perform a classic murder story but they struggle until the very end when anything and everything goes wrong. Interestingly enough, the audience gets wrapped up into the antics of the inept cast of characters from the very beginning before some of them even realize the show has started.
Davenport said the small size of the theatre lends itself to this dynamic between the stage performers and the audience. But the show on the stage is not only a performance, it’s an educational experience as well.
“The kids are comfortable with having to perform in a bigger space to reach the audience,” he said. “They’re not so well practiced in having to pull back and make [their acting] smaller because the audience is right in their face in this setting. It really is going to give us some great opportunities to do some neat things in the future, I do believe.”
He went on to say the school is fortunate to have both a Mainstage and a blackbox theatre so students can learn how to act in big and small venues. And they will gain a lot of experience, because the ball keeps rolling at OHS Theatre.
They are currently setting their sights on the next season with Spongebob: The Musical on the Mainstage and a revisit to an older OHS play, Summertree. Davenport said Summertree is a part of a series of older plays that OHS will revisit in the future.
Many parents of the students who played in the original OHS Summertree production over 10 years ago are season subscribers to the theatre and will witness a reproduction with an entirely new cast. Davenport said it’s a sign of continued community support, which is a big part of why the theatre has been so successful.
“It’s just neat that there is still that love and appreciation for it altogether,” he said. “I think that’s the goal of an arts teacher. We want to instill enough appreciation that they continue to be a contributor to whatever art it is in their community or wherever community they end up.”
OHS Theatre will also be advancing to the Mississippi Theatre State Festival which will be taking place in Meridian. It is the first time in four years since OHS has attended and it is one of many exciting opportunities the students are afforded.
“There’s so many lessons to be learned by getting involved in the theatre,” said Davenport. “The group effort, the collaboration, learning when to lead and when to follow — those are just life lessons in general the theatre can offer. Even if it’s not what you choose to do for your life-chosen path, there’s so many things you can get out of it.”
For more information about the Oxford High School Theatre, become a season subscriber or donate to the theatre, visit www.oxfordsd.org/domain/194.