When the Wildcat Players take to the stage to compete in the Southeastern Theatre Conference High School Festival in Kentucky next week, the theatrical group from Greenville's Woodmont High will try to become the first regional champion ever from South Carolina.
They'll be competing against students from nine other states, including some attending their state's equivalent to South Carolina's Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.
It may sound like a tough task for a school that has only had a drama program since 2008 – but the first challenge is to finish raising the $19,000 needed to pay for the trip.
"My students earned this opportunity," said Will Ragland, one of two drama teachers at Woodmont High and Greenville County's reigning Teacher of the Year. "It would not be fair to them to be denied it because of the expense. I've resorted to handwritten letters to people."
In an attempt to raise the last $5,000, the Wildcat Players will present three public performances of their state championship production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors." Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door. If the group doesn't raise the rest of the money this weekend, the rest will have to come from the revenue from the Woodmont Players' spring show, a large production of "Peter Pan."
"It's a money-draining experience, but for these kids, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Ragland said.
The story of this year's winning show is much like the story of the Wildcat Players themselves.
Woodmont High had held theater productions before over the years, but the school didn't have a drama program, Ragland said.
Ragland, who taught art at Sue Cleveland Elementary, was recruited for an open arts teacher position at Woodmont after he produced a full musical production of "The Wizard of Oz" that included a cast of 115 elementary, middle and high school students.
"My students didn't see live theater," he said. "It was too far and not affordable."
Woodmont now has two full-time drama teachers, the only regular high school in Greenville County – and perhaps the state – to do so.
"I'm not trying to create an army of actors," Ragland said. "I am trying to get them to be interested in something. Some of them go on to study theater in college. But no matter what they do, theater can always be a part of their lives."
Now, in the sixth year of the drama program, the Wildcat Players are state champions – and the school's first state champions in anything since the 1979 golf team.
Ragland came up with the idea behind the unique one-act production about a year and a half ago. Ragland had seen some twins in a tiny class presentation and he thought it would be interesting to feature real twins in a Shakespeare play that has twins in it. He decided to do "The Comedy of Errors," a play that has two sets of twins in it, and was confident he could find the people he needed to play the lead characters.
"Typically, people who are cast look similar and are dressed alike," Ragland said. "I've never seen a production with real twins."
The twins in the class production – Dylan and Dale Roberts – said yes. Gavin Armstrong, a junior with no acting experience whatsoever, said yes, too. But Armstrong's identical twin brother – Garrett, who is one minute older – said no.
It took Ragland 45 minutes to convince Garrett to give it a try.
"I wasn't sure I had the time to do it, and I didn't know if I'd be any good," Garrett said. "When I got the script, I was scared out of my mind. I had a lot of lines. But once I said yes, I didn't want to say no."
Having his brother there helped ease his anxiety.
"We're used to having each other around," Gavin said.
"Yes, there's a comfort level there," said Garrett.
While the two sets of twins were precast, open auditions were held for the rest of the roles.
During September and October, the Armstrongs and the rest of the cast learned the lines of the play. They learned about the comedic timing necessary to make the production a success.
"Timing is key. You've got to time it just right to make it really funny," Gavin Armstrong said. "We spent a lot of time working on that. It has been so much fun getting up on stage. Knowing that people are having a good time is great. It's the best feeling in the world."
The production is inspired by vaudeville and silent film. The play is set in 1927. A five-minute black-and-white silent film – paying homage to the films of that day – created by the Wildcat Players opens the show. The silent film comes to life in the rest of the play, all set in black and white and gray scale.
A live band makes the sound effects.
The state competition required the Wildcat Players to set up, perform the play and strike the set within 45 minutes. If they went over the time limit, they were disqualified.
"One of the judges thought we were using one actor doing an incredibly quick change," Ragland said.
The Armstrongs and the Robertses won All-Star Cast Awards. Lucy Southwell won Best Supporting Actress and Jordyn Tracy won the state's Best Actress award. Woodmont also won the Technical Award for the production.
Now it's on to Kentucky for the regionals.