Hardin High wins state Thespian Festival at UM

Hardin High School Drama Club director Darren Means, left front, snapped this photo on the way home from the Montana State Thespian Festival in Missoula last weekend. Behind him, students display a certificate of creative excellence and another recommending the troupe as Montana’s representative at the International Thespian Festival this summer.

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Lisa Marie Hyslop has been an adjudicator at the Montana State Thespian Festival for five years, her husband for two.

During this year’s festival, held over the weekend at the University of Montana in Missoula, they saw something they won’t soon forget.

“We were absolutely blown away by the students from Hardin High School,” Lisa Marie said. “We have been doing this for years and frankly have rarely seen a performance with such honesty and heart, both in the production and in the performers.”

And that’s why the Hardin High School students were selected from among 23 participating schools to represent Montana at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., this June.

Darren Means, director of the Hardin High School Drama Club, said his students showed what they were capable of during a preview of their performance for people in Hardin on Feb. 1.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” he said. And then they were even better in Missoula last weekend.

“When they were done, there was this brief moment of silence,” Means said, “then this raucous applause, this cheering and then a standing ovation. I was just absolutely amazed at what these kids were able to do.”

To help get the young actors to Nebraska this summer, Means has started a GoFundMe page, with a goal of raising $10,000. In less than two days, they had already raised a little more than $1,600. Means figures the group will actually need about $14,000 for tuition, and food and housing, both provided through the University of Nebraska, “but I’m very much of the mind that the students have to put forth some effort, too.”

So he’s asking them to put together fundraisers to come up with $4,000, and he’s working with the Hardin school district to find funding for the bus ride to Lincoln and back, plus food and one night in a motel each way.

The Hardin drama club has been registered as an official troupe with the International Thespian Society since 1995 and has gone to Missoula for the state festival whenever possible, most years under the leadership of Janie Morissette.

After she retired in 2013, she was succeeded by Means, who had been her technical director and sometime assistant director. The state festival is not really thought of as a competition, Means said, but when schools feel they’re ready, they can be entered for consideration to attend the international festival.

This year, for the first time in many years, Means thought his students, all of them juniors, sophomores and freshmen, were ready. Partly that was because they had chosen such a strong one-act play, “Fighting Demons” by Angela Hill, a playwright from Fargo, N.D.

In it, some actors play high school students battling their own demons, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, bulimia, addiction, cancer, bullying and thoughts of suicide, while several others play actual demons, or personifications of the troubles confronting the students.

Means said he told his students at the outset, “You guys are going to have to devote a lot of time to this, because this is a very serious play. … This is not something we can go halfway with.”

They did not go halfway, as Hylsop can attest.

“Every student on that stage delivered a beautifully honest performance,” she said. “They were 100 percent committed, top to bottom. Every piece of this play was effective storytelling.”

Speaking with the students afterward, which was part of her role as an adjudicator, Hylsop said, “We saw in them a beautiful earnestness. … They were impressive young people.”

Assisted by Mitch Evans, a speech and drama coach at Hardin High, Means took 18 students to Missoula, 16 of whom appeared in the play. One served as an off-stage narrator and technician and the other was in charge of the lighting.

All of his students were good, Means said, but one in particular, TyWayne Pretty On Top, a junior, was “the anchor for everything.” Pretty On Top played a boy who felt he was responsible for his sister’s death, Means said.

In one scene he is delivering a monologue and starts talking about a sunfish he caught, how he had to cut it open to remove the lure. As he continues talking, it becomes obvious he’s talking about his sister’s death and his part in it.

“It’s such an emotional moment, and he just embraces that emotion,” Means said. “You believe so strongly that he is reliving that moment.”

Hyslop had high praise for both Means and Evans.

“The two of them together, working with these students—I simply can’t imagine a more supportive environment that the one they created,” she said.

Sarah DeGrandpre, a drama coach at Big Sky High School in Missoula and the director of Montana Thespians, confirmed that Hardin is one of the few small schools chosen to represent the state at the international festival. The last small school so honored was from Plains, in Western Montana, in 2011.

“It’s a huge honor,” she said. “It’s really a big deal. When a non-AA school gets the award to do this, it’s really cool.”

The international festival, set for June 19-24 in Lincoln, will include workshops led by theater professionals, individual and group performances, technical classes and opportunities for students to audition for college scholarships and admission. The festival website describes it as “a one-of-a-kind, weeklong immersion experience in singing, dancing, acting, designing, directing, creating, writing, and memory-making.”

Means was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but his mother is a member of the Crow Nation and his family moved to Colstrip when he was 16. He was active in theater from the age of 13 and studied drama at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings.

Means said the drama club is an extracurricular activity and puts a lot of pressure on students involved in other activities, especially sports. But this year, his students have been actively engaged and committed to the club. He said watching them perform in “Fighting Demons” was especially poignant because some of them had dealt with similar troubles in their own lives.

“We had some amazing talent,” Means said. “I honestly can’t think of a single person that we have on the troupe that wasn’t perfect for the role they were in.”

How to help: Just in case you missed that earlier reference, here’s a link to the GoFundMe page for the Hardin High School Drama Club.