“Left. Right. Left. Right,” the voice of choreographer Alyssa Bond rings in the Performing Arts Center. A chorus of song and movement echoes throughout the theater as actors file out onto the stage. From afar, the brightly lit stage seems to be a whirlwind of bodies as last minute changes are made to the dance number and a new page is added to the script. However, the clamor, instead of fueling chaos, breathes life into Palo Alto High School Theater’s upcoming musical.
“Venture,” which debuts March 9, follows the journey of protagonist Saira Sidana, played by sophomore Sofia Peterson. Sidana is a 35-year-old startup CEO who encounters some of the personal and professional issues faced by many women in Silicon Valley.
“Venture” is Paly Theater’s second original production after “Love Songs in Traffic,” which debuted in 2006. Both were written and composed by choir director Michael Najar.
Najar began writing “Venture” almost five years ago, inspired after witnessing Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, announce both her pregnancy and at-the-time new position on the same day.
“I thought, wouldn’t this be an amazing moment: a woman telling the world, ‘I am head of one of the biggest companies in the world and I am pregnant,’” Najar says. “That’s an amazingly powerful moment. It’s something that no man can be able to say.”
“That’s an amazingly powerful moment. It’s something that no man can be able to say.”
— Michael Najar, choir director
Najar views “Venture” as a follow up to “Love Songs in Traffic,” which detailed the constroversy of the construction of a new highway in downtown Los Angeles. Having lived in both Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, Najar drew upon his personal experiences to write both musicals.
At the end of 2016, Najar proposed “Venture” to Kathleen Woods, the director of Paly Theater, who loved the idea.
“The opportunity to do a new piece just is an amazing opportunity for students, for the creative artists for the community,” Woods says. “If you really want to participate and succeed in the arts, oftentimes you need to make your own art.”
Woods recognizes the efforts Najar has made to ensure an accurate portrayal of a woman’s experience in Silicon Valley. Besides collaborating with female colleagues such as Woods, Najar has also consulted women in the tech industry and female script writers.
“It [“Venture”] is very supportive of women,” Woods says. “That comes through — it’s something very important to the playwright.”
New frontiers of creative freedom
Original productions allow Paly Theater to access not only to the playwright and composer of a musical, but also creative control. Without the precedent of another theater’s interpretation of the script, students are able to shape the script and their characters.
Junior Gil Weissman, who plays principal character Brian, Saira’s boyfriend, views “Venture” as a useful experience.
“For a high schooler to have this opportunity to work on an original musical and have input on the music, the character and on the script itself is a very good experience,” Weissman says. “It’s something for anyone who aspires to go into this field [professional theater] after high school.”
According to Weisman, most students were excited about this development.
“This new idea of an original play definitely drew a much bigger community compared to people who auditioned in the past,” he says.
Najar says he has emphasized collaboration by reaching out for input.
“I’ve begged [students] to give me feedback because I want to know, ‘Does this feel right?’” Najar says.
Peterson, who agrees that Najar values student voice, views new plays as more actor-centric.
“It’s focused more around the actors,” Peterson says. “I’ve pointed out something that doesn’t make sense, in which case they think about changing it.”
“It’s cool to work directly with the director and get his input to see what his interpretation of it is, instead of putting on a more traditional show,” says senior Kelly Keith, who is part of the ensemble.
In addition to the flexibility afforded by original productions, students also learn from professional theater technicians. However, unlike other productions, “Venture” calls for projections, where scenes or backgrounds are projected on stage. Thus, students have the chance to explore lighting design with a professional.
“It [working with professionals] gives [students] connections in the community and broader world,” Woods says. “It allows the program to have a much broader base than anything I could do by myself.”
“It [working with professionals] gives [students] connections in the community and broader world. It allows the program to have a much broader base than anything I could do by myself.”
— Kathleen Woods, the director of Paly Theater
Beyond the Bard
The original production came at the expense of Paly Theater tradition. “Venture,” set in the 21st century, was a surprise to those who expected a Shakespearean tragedy this spring.
Weissman says that while a majority of theater participants felt excited about this new development, some opposed it.
“There were obviously people who wanted to stick to more of the Shakespearean musical routine,” Weissman says. “Some of the seniors who have more strength in pure acting … were hoping to have this year be the year to take on more a Shakespearean role. This is sort of the opposite.”
According to Woods, who agreed to take on the original production, several factors influenced the decision to produce “Venture” instead of a Shakespearean play. She recognized the significance of giving a high school program the opportunity to produce a world premiere musical, and that the features of the Performing Arts Center make it the optimal environment for producing a musical.
Woods also cited the plot of the musical as a major factor in her decision to produce it.
“It’s a piece that deals with our world,” Woods says. “It really raises the positive profile of women and the things we struggle with.”
Both Woods and Najar hope “Venture” draws the attention of the local community, especially those interested in the arts, and that “Venture” will expand to other theaters in the Bay Area.
Likewise, Emily Zhang, the president of Paly Thespian Club and part of the supporting cast, is excited about the musical’s potential.
“Hopefully it can touch everyone in the audience and have everybody either evaluate themselves or the things that have happened to them,” Zhang says. “Those [women’s] voices are really, really important for a lot of people to hear.”