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Building a community

Lincoln High School's burgeoning theater department tackles "Anything Goes"

Lincoln High School has reinstated its theater program.

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Tacoma's Eastside has a reputation. A reputation it's been trying to change. Part of the struggle is that changing this reputation requires working on many fronts - crime, property values, potholes, lack of amenities and schools. 

When Tacomans think of Lincoln High School, they sometimes think of poverty, gangs or low test scores instead of dedicated administrators, staff and students who diligently strive to improve the school and community. Thanks to the direction of Principal Pat Erwin and others, Lincoln has improved markedly in the last several years. 

People also don't usually equate Lincoln with Cole Porter or any theater related endeavor.

Well, it's time Tacoma thought again.

May 13, I attended opening night of Lincoln's production of Anything Goes. Going in, I knew it was the first musical Lincoln had done in nearly two decades. I also knew the drama program at Lincoln was relatively new, and, of course, how hard the school has been working to increase the rigorousness of academics and graduation rates.

I was completely unprepared for what I saw on opening night. 

Anything Goes is a farce set on the high seas that follows Billy as he goes after the girl of his dreams. There are mistaken identities, gangsters, girls marrying for money, nightclub singers, booze, Cole Porter songs, tap numbers, physical comedy, a live dog and innuendos aplenty. 

It's a daring choice for any high school production, but that wasn't what caught me off guard. It was the talent. Loads of talent and great comedic timing on display was what impressed me the most. 

Sure, the production had limitations, but director Julie Somers, musical director Lynn Eisenhauer and assistant director Char Davenport worked within those to create something amazing. For starters, no microphones of any kind were used. In a non-musical, that's not a problem, but these kids had to project over a live orchestra. The orchestra was placed back stage, allowing the set to soak up some of the sound and help the actors be heard more easily.

Speaking of the set, it was one of the better musical sets I've seen this season. The costumes were great, and the lighting was a little rough around the edges - but good.

The actors were fabulous. The majority had high energy and was completely immersed in their characters. A couple looked nervous, but that's understandable opening night.

Some of the most notable performances were laid down by Okneca Hamptonie (Reno), Mike Anderson (Billy), Sid Mam (Moonface), A.J. Desagnes (Sir Evelyn), Haille Bell (Erma), James Harvey (Elisha), and Cesar Ureno (The Captain). Some of these performances were memorable because of the actor's singing or acting abilities; others were brilliant with comedic timing, facial expression and gestures.  A few in this group could easily carry a whole show. All of these are students to watch in the future as they hopefully go on to contribute to other theatrical endeavors in the community.

Even with all the available talent, there were still many obstacles that Lincoln had to overcome to even get a theater class, much less put on a notable production.

Lincoln's last musical production was in 1992 - before most of the current cast was born. One of the dilemmas in education is that teachers are hired based on student enrollment, and any decline in student population is matched with a reduction in teaching staff. Since it's easier to cut a program instead of asking six teachers to reduce hours, the ensuing result is often a loss of an "elective or enrichment" program. The arts are usually cut first.

As Lincoln began its shift toward higher academic achievement, the question arose of how establish a theater program that could rival other high schools. The answer was found in hiring Julie Somers. Even this was challenging. While highly qualified, due to budgeting constraints, it took three years of active work to be able to open the position. Mrs. Somers has now been at Lincoln for the last three years and has worked tirelessly to build a program from scratch.

Another problem was the facilities that were available for the theater program at Lincoln. The lighting system was from the ‘80s and hadn't been cleaned. The auditorium acoustics resembled an echo chamber. Holding class in there was so impractical that performing in that space was nearly unthinkable. 

Undaunted, Somers began focusing on acting and held the initial productions in the choir room as a way to circumnavigate the auditorium's issues. The first production was 50 minutes and consisted of scenes with music and poetry. It was so successful; Lincoln went on to do a full-length production of Crimes of the Heart, also in the choir room. 

During this time of growth, Mrs. Somers researched and found ways to make the auditorium usable. She and her students hung draperies to absorb sound, which got rid of the echo chamber feel. They found support from the district to take apart, clean and repair the existing lighting instruments. They received more support from principal Pat Erwin, who helped them rent other lighting gear that was needed. They also found help in an unlikely source - the athletic department. People involved in extra-curricular activities in schools understand it's difficult to share students. Lincoln's athletic department made concessions to spare one of the team leaders so he could be at rehearsals. In addition, they provided the use of the coach's headsets to the technical crew during performances.

You Can't Take it With You was Lincoln's first full-length production in the auditorium. The next big challenge was to pull off a musical. Anyone that has undertaken a musical with a dedicated, experienced, adult cast understands the challenge to juggle singing, dancing and acting. Accomplishing this with a young cast pulled in different directions by academics, friends and family is seemingly impossible.

Lincoln's Drama Department proved no exception to this dilemma. One of the biggest challenges arose when, three to four weeks into rehearsals, the actor originally cast in the lead role of "Billy" suddenly dropped out. Michael Andersen stepped up and into a role that was challenging for him as an actor as well as singer. He accomplished the acting part quite well, having all of his lines for Act 1 memorized over the first weekend of assuming the role. The songs proved much more challenging. While Andersen has sung as part of choirs, he had never sung solo in front of anyone - and the range of most of "Billy's" songs were much higher than he could easily muster. While this was obvious during the performance, Andersen's confidence and grace overshadowed any lack of technical skill.

Students had to devote their time after school and weekends to pull of the Cole Porter musical in four short months. They worked hard to transform from a chaotic group to a cohesive unit by opening night. The kids saw that to make it work, they had to have each other's back and step up.

Many of the actors I spoke with after the show said once they learned to have fun with their role and embrace the comedy and silliness a farce demands, they were able to grow in their characters and their fears and inhibitions dissolved.

When I asked the actors and directors what they would like next for Lincoln's Drama Department, the answers came back with a focus on community. While they want a reputation for putting on quality theater that rivals any other production in town, and a full house, what they really want is to be such a part of the community that the community feels like it is part of Lincoln. To this end they have created The Eastside Theatre Circle (ETC), a theatre production company with the purpose of reflecting the community and including members from the neighborhood. They hope the ETC will be an ongoing repertory group that will draw in community members as partners to support the work at Lincoln. They want to develop a sense of pride in the school and community and aim to do this by building the drama program into something that is the envy of the city. 

If you wish to get involved and support Lincoln's drama program in any way, contact Julie Somers at Lincoln High School by email at or by phone, (253) 571-6750.

Anything Goes

May 20-21, 7 p.m., $6 adults, $5 students, $4 ASB sticker
Lincoln High School Auditorium, 701 S 37th St.,

Comments for "Building a community" (1)

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A.J. Desgagnes said on Jun. 30, 2010 at 11:17pm

That is an amazing artical and i really appreciate that you wrote this. Thank you :)

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