Students Take “The Masks We Wear” to New Level through Drama

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(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
Co-writers/directors Aya Banaja (on screen) and Mina Jenab (R) direct their cast in Honeybee, one of four short plays to be performed June 2-3 at Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater.

    Orinda high school students were the last to return to in-person learning. For the past year, they, like their younger counterparts, spent their school time in Zoom classes and independent study. Distance learning challenged all students, but it was especially difficult for the performing arts.
    “We’d been reading and doing plays over Zoom, but it’s not the same as performing,” said Miramonte Drama Teacher Heather Cousins. “I wanted to do something more, especially for the seniors, to give them one last time to perform together as a group.”
    That “something more” became a challenge to her advanced drama students to create their own plays around the theme “The Masks We Wear.” Each of the 34 students presented an individual proposal to the class, which selected four to be developed further and produced at Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater June 2-3 at 7 p.m. Each play is approximately 30 minutes and integrates the use of masks in the action.
    “I wanted to write something that was like a breath of fresh air after the year we’ve all had,” said playwright Mina Jenab, who after her idea was chosen, teamed up with classmate Aya Banaja to write the script and direct.
    Jenab and Banaja’s play Honeybee follows two young small-town beekeepers, Grace and Penelope, as they fall in love. The play is “narrated” by two young people sitting at a café table.
    “I’m so lucky to be working with Aya; she completely understands my vision,” Jenab said. “We chose our cast first and built the characters around each actor. It’s so wonderful to see my idea coming to life. The whole mood of the show is something I think will really resonate with people.”
    Playwright Clara Holland went for a psychological action-adventure story in Point B. While trying to recover an ancient, cursed artifact, five explorers get lost in the jungle. As tensions rise, people’s true motivations come to the surface.
    “It’s a story about trust, deception and humanity,” Holland explained. “Imagine if Dora the Explorer clashed with Jumanji and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That’s our show.”
    Holland said she came up with her script very late at night while “spit-balling” ideas with her brother. Since the show focuses on individual characters, the young playwright has worked closely with the actors to develop the script and make the show as real as possible.
    “It’s been quite surreal slowly seeing my vision come to life and hearing people read the words I write. But the ideas and words are not all mine,” said Holland. “It’s been a collaborative process. I’m so thankful to be working with such an amazing group of people.”
    Playwright Valentina Navarro-Marsili decided on a period piece for her work Murder at the Masquerade. Set in 1902, it follows eight thieves who attend the 25th annual masquerade ball at Windsor Castle with the intent of stealing a necklace worth a fortune. While the heist is successful, the thieves mysteriously begin to die.
    Although the play’s a murder mystery, Navarro-Marsili says it’s really about “how greed destroys us and love prevails.” She came up with the concept while researching the kinds of masks people wear.
    “Masquerade balls came up and so did thieves, so I drafted some basic plot points and then strung them all together,” said Navarro-Marsili. “It’s very cool watching my writing come to life and seeing how my friends internalize the lines. It differs from what I saw in my head.”
    The fourth play is Molly Weber’s “I Hate Musicals: The Musical” about a special world where it’s completely normal and encouraged to break into song. One day during a musical number, the character Evan lets it slip that he hates musicals and he and another character Sophie find they both feel the same.
    “I came up with this idea when we were prompted to think about the masks we wear,” said Weber. “I realized I was in a theater class, but I hate musicals. I found this very funny and ironic and thought it would make a hilarious musical. I then got together with my classmate Heather Shinn to co-write and co-direct the one-act musical. Hearing the actors bring our vision to life is extraordinary and very gratifying when they laugh at things Heather and I have written.”
    When Cousins first told the class about this project, in-person learning had not returned. All rehearsals were via Zoom. Now, they have 90 minutes several times a week together at the Miramonte theater with students, who chose to stay with distance learning zooming in from home as well as playwrights/directors Aya Banaja and Valentina Navarro-Marsili, who are fully remote.
    “It’s so special for the students to be able to do this show live and at Cal Shakes,” said Cousins. “Many of them grew up going to summer programs there and seeing plays. And, Cal Shakes has been so wonderful to us. It’s such a magical place.”
    For tickets to “The Masks We Wear,” go to www.calshakes.org. Audience size will be limited.

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