Last fall, Jonathan Knox posed a question to the students in his drama class at Petaluma High School: would anyone be interested in writing a script for a dinner theater murder mystery? As director of the drama program, he had previously done dinner theater productions and found the format of seeing a show and having dinner a great experience for both the audience and the actors.
Two students, Sorcha Fatooh, a senior at Valley Oaks, and Gustavo Ceron-Mendoza, a senior at PHS, volunteered to take on the challenging project. They began writing in September and since then, they have put hundreds of hours of work and intense creative energy into the production. Their original play, "Paracurricular Activity," will be performed at PHS on March 29th and 30th.
In addition to coauthoring the script, Fatooh is also directing the play with Knox acting as assistant director. Knox says that he has pushed the students to enhance the script and has come in to help with blocking, the often tedious process of planning where the actors will move on stage, but overall, his role "is to let them do the work and just check in to make sure that they are successful."
When Knox offered the "hard task" of writing a script to his class, he set some requirements for the play; it had to be a murder mystery with multiple endings so someone seeing it the first night wouldn't spoil the ending for the second night's audience; it had to have definite breaks to allow time to serve each dinner course, there needed to be a portion in the play where students engaged the audience and the cast had to be kept to a manageable size.
Fatooh and Ceron-Mendoza, who knew each other from "South Pacific," another PHS production, started brainstorming on how they would approach developing a script. They shared the writing equally, emailing portions of the script back and forth and "spending many long evenings in Starbucks," finishing the final draft in December.
"I love murder mysteries but we didn't want to just rehash 'Clue' so we started looking at movies from the 1980s like 'Heathers.' Our play has elements of magical realism with some campy fun. It's set at a really small authoritarian boarding school in a really small, out of the way town," says Fatooh.
Knox says that PHS is very supportive of student work so when Fatooh and Ceron-Mendoza put the casting call out to the student body about 30 students responded. Everyone who auditioned had to perform a monologue. The result is 11 cast members who Fatooh says "are really serious about theater. Because it is teenagers playing teenagers, the characters in the play are people they can identify with; everyone is really into their character."
Parents have stepped up to help Knox with the dinner portion of the evening as well as helping with set construction. "We really have a good drama community here," he says.
The dinner theater format gives students who aren't actors an opportunity to be a part of the production. "People are really excited about being part of the wait staff. They get integrated right into the show," says Knox.
Fatooh says that while being a lot of work, it's rewarding work. "I have learned a lot about staying on top of things and running a production."