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Maricopa High School Theatre Company

Cynthia Calhoun directing students. Photo by Mason Callejas

The curtain closed on Maricopa High School’s theater program in 2010 when low interest in enrollment could no longer sustain it.

Then came along Cynthia Calhoun.

At the time, she was already a full-time English teacher at MHS with doctorate and master’s degrees in literature, as well as bachelor degrees in English, Theater and Education.

With $12 and a loan from student council, Calhoun revived interest and took on the theater club as an extra-curricular activity in the days before the high school’s state-of-the-art performing arts center.

“We built this really kooky little set and we did William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors in the lecture hall,” Calhoun recalled.

Dressed in costumes inherited from Calhoun’s predecessor, the cast decorated their humble stage with the few props remaining from the shuttered program.

That spring, Calhoun wrote and directed a cabaret-style musical chronologizing Broadway’s biggest hits.

The following year, MHS drama found a home as it opened the PAC and its cozy Black Box Theatre.

Calhoun has since resurrected the theater program at MHS and developed it into an award-winning, competitive troupe, MHS Theatre Company. In her tenure, she has directed 11 plays and eight musicals while supervising four student-directed plays.

Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

The 2017-18 school year was the first Calhoun spent teaching only drama courses full-time. And it will be her last.

In April, the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board approved Calhoun’s resignation.

“A lot of the decision came down to just trying to manage my health because teaching is an incredibly physically demanding discipline – especially teaching theater,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome as a teenager.

The genetic condition causes chronic health issues in those affected and has spurred Calhoun’s three knee surgeries and a heart operation.

“I’d like to stave off surgeries for a long time and be there for my children, who are in elementary school,” Calhoun said with tears in her eyes. “I decided it was probably best for me to not work as full-time as possible. It sucks.”

Last year at the Arizona High School Drama Coach Convention, she was elected a representative to the Central Region of Arizona Thespians. Her students have gone on to earn scholarships and awards.

A break from the mainstage doesn’t include a permanent absence from her students, however. The celebrated theater teacher plans to register as a volunteer for the drama program at MHS next year.

Many of Calhoun’s students have been under her instruction their entire high school experience and have gained a sense of independence from it, like MHS senior Collin Martin.

Photo by Joycelyn Cabrera

“She helped me discover my love for theater, and she’s also taught me many important life lessons, such as getting your stuff together before something big happens, or always act professional and how to have a certain manner about yourself that you can portray to other people to show you’re serious about something,” Martin said.

Calhoun said she hopes the next theater teacher will find ways to challenge the acting students while at the same time know how to have fun with them.

The effect her own compassion has had in the classroom is evident in Calhoun’s students.

“Not many theater teachers truly treat their students as not only professionals but also as equals, and she allows us to learn in so many different ways,” said senior Britney Montgomery.

Calhoun’s departing lesson comes from a line written by American poet Walt Whitman.

“He writes: ‘The powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse.’” Calhoun said, adding, “And I always want to challenge kids to think about what their verse is going to be. They get to decide that – so, make it a good one.”

Photo by Mason Callejas

Reporter Joycelyn Cabrera contributed to this story. 

This story appears in the May issue of InMaricopa. 


A dress-rehearsal glimpse of MHS Theatre Company's "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." Submitted photo

The Maricopa High School Theatre Company is on a fantasy bent this year.

If You Go
What: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”
Who: Maricopa High School Theatre Company
When: Nov. 10-11, 7 p.m., Nov. 12, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Where: MHS Performing Arts Center, 45012 W. Honeycutt Ave.
How much: $5

The fall production is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In spring, look for the students’ version of the musical “Beauty and the Beast.”

The journey to Narnia is Nov. 10-12 at 7 p.m., plus a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is based on the book by C.S. Lewis and is adapted for the stage by Cindi Calhoun, the MHS teacher who heads the theater department.

Calhoun wrote the play over the summer. She said the well-known story should draw families to the Performing Arts Center for a night of entertainment.

She said she kept very close to the book, which is full of good and evil, betrayal, redemption, mythical creatures and assorted talking animals. It follows the adventures of the four Pevensie children in wartime England. Sent out of London during the Blitz, they stay in the country home of a professor.

The youngest child, Lucy, finds an old wardrobe and quickly discovers it is a portal to the mystical land of Narnia, which is completely encased in eternal winter and ruled by the White Witch. Lucy’s older siblings eventually follow her there. They become the center of a power struggle between the White Witch and the lion Aslan, the rightful king, who has reappeared after a long absence.

Some of the cast members of MHS Theatre Company’s production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: (clockwise from left) Ivie Keene, Carlos O. Venegas, Brandon Korittky, Hannah Panter and Kjirsten Lemon.
Some of the cast members of MHS Theatre Company’s production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: (clockwise from left) Ivie Keene, Carlos O. Venegas, Brandon Korittky, Hannah Panter and Kjirsten Lemon.

“This is the first time I’ve had a super-intensive villain role,” said senior Tyler Curtis, who plays the White Witch. Theater-goers may remember her as Madame Thenardier in MHSTC’s spring production of “Les Miserables.”

“She’s evil because she likes it,” Curtis said. “She wants power.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is senior Sarah Ledbetter, who plays Lucy, an 8 year old. “Apparently I’m great at playing children,” she said. She was Gavroche in “Lez Miz,” but this is her first major role.

“I’m kind of stepping out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Ledbetter said the planning for this production has been very smooth. Part of that is put on the shoulders of the stage manager, sophomore Aidyn Curtis (Tyler’s little sister). She helps with blocking and calling cues. She’s also in charge of attendance at rehearsals.

Aidyn has performed in previous MHS productions, but now has a perspective from the other side of the footlights.

“I did really enjoy the audition and call-back process,” she said.

Scores of students have been cast. It is not uncommon for an actor to take on more than one role, but senior Nikolas Mase has three parts. Mase will give voice to Aslan while also playing the professor and Santa.

The White Witch’s henchmen are wolves, and leading up the pack are senior Carlos O. Venegas and junior Ivie Keene. Both have been very active with the theater program and read together during casting.

“I’ve always wanted to play bad guys,” said Keene, who also loves the fantasy aspect of the story.

Venegas, who, like Tyler Curtis, intends to major in theater, said he loves that the play adaptation is Calhoun’s work.

Submitted photo
Submitted photo

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The thespians from Maricopa High School Theatre Company chose to indulge in some community service Saturday by hosting a pet adoption event in the high school quad. Adoptables were provided through Pet Social Worker/Tails of Hope.


‘Pirates of Penzance’ precedes ‘Philadelphia Story,’ ‘Les Miz’

The MHS Theatre Company kicked off its 2015-16 season with an iconic comic operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Photo by Adam Wolfe

The ambitious Maricopa High School Theatre Company took on the challenge of classic comedy with their rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1879 comedic operetta “The Pirates of Penzance” in November.

That is just the start of a challenging if stimulating season for the troupe. Students are not just learning lines and showing off singing voices. They are living up to their title as a theater company and not a basic drama club. That means learning stagecraft and all aspects of putting on a show.

“Students were tasked to put together this entire production – music, acting, costumes, sets, props, choreography, light and sound design, and more – within only two months,” co-director and theater/drama teacher Cynthia Calhoun says.

The four-show musical was co-directed by theater tech teacher Kevin Piquette.

With a cast and crew numbering more than 50, the MHS Theatre Company handled “The Pirates of Penzance” in a professional manner. Gilbert & Sullivan’s complicated music and lyrics and demand for precise comic timing were challenges turned into fun.

“Overall, I’m very happy with our production and what we have been able to accomplish within our theater department,” Calhoun says. “This is the first operetta we have performed and is more demanding than a traditional musical or straight play.”

Calhoun says the production was the company’s most financially successful. The proceeds are divided evenly between the theater company and technical theater programs.

“We sold over 550 tickets, and the students earned $2,800 toward future productions,” she says.

“The Philadelphia Story”
Feb. 4-6, 7 p.m.
MHS Lecture Hall

That will include the comedy “The Philadelphia Story” (think Katharine Hepburn) by Philip Barry. It will be performed Feb. 4-6 in the more intimate Maricopa High School Lecture Hall. The spring musical will be the adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic “Les Miserables” in a student edition. It will be staged in April at the MHS Performing Arts Center.

“We’ve already invested our 50 percent into the spring musical,” Calhoun says.

Piquette says the success of “The Pirates of Penzance” raised the bar of expectations for the future productions.

“I am excited for the future of both programs and can’t wait to see what our students can build and perform next,” he says.

This story appeared in the Winter Edition of InMaricopa the Magazine.

Students are responsible for music, acting, costumes, sets, props, choreography, light and sound design, and more. Photo by Adam Wolfe
Students are responsible for music, acting, costumes, sets, props, choreography, light and sound design, and more. Photo by Adam Wolfe