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Penn Fine Arts Academy presents The Great Gatsby Nov. 13-15

Anticipating the Penn Fine Arts Academy presentation of The Great Gatsby are, front row from the left, Alexis Garwood, Suzie Miley, Billie Bennett, Josh Beckett, and, back row from the left, Bryce Yoder, Penn High School principal Steve Hope, Matt Magaldi, Penn High School Theatre Instructor Courtney Qualls, and Broderick Balsley.


Beaded flapper dresses and silky black tuxedoes will glisten under the bright lights of Penn High School’s Center for Performing Arts this weekend, when the Penn High School Fine Arts Academy presents The Great Gatsby.

Performances will take place in the CPA on Friday, Nov. 13, and Saturday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 15, at 3 p.m. Tickets for students are $7, and tickets for adults are $10.

Penn High School principal Steve Hope said that he appreciates the complex undertaking by theatre instructor Courtney Qualls and the Kingsmen troupe to transport audiences to a fascinating era in American history.

“The Great Gatsby is a very ambitious undertaking for the Fall Play,” Hope said. “Mrs. Qualls is using a very large cast, elaborate costumes, complicated sets and even dance choreography. It is really a mini-musical. As if these challenges were not great enough, there is always a challenge in a production that is taken from such a popular novel and a recent motion picture, as the comparison between the novel, the play and the movie are inevitable. At the same time, this is also a great opportunity for all to see the differences between a novel, a live performance and a motion picture.

“I am very impressed with the work from our students. The actors have done a great job with a very physical play with a great deal of dialogue. The tech crew is as equally impressive with the set designs and lighting. I think audiences will be thrilled with the production and the level of professionalism from our students. I am so looking forward to seeing the production Saturday night.”

According to Qualls, Penn High School’s production of Gatsby features full-cast choreographed (by a cast member) dance numbers, lots of flash and sparkle, the raining of shirts, and a life-size replica of the infamous yellow car.

Qualls has established a high standard for Penn’s student-actors by selecting The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby is a classic piece of literature that is normally well-liked, and so the challenge for my actors becomes taking this beloved piece of literature and turning it into a beloved piece of art; creating a world, and telling a story that lives up to the preconceived notions that people already have,” Qualls said. “Most students have also not been in a situation like those in Gatsby. 

“A challenge comes with authentically being able to portray the emotions and actions,” Qualls continued. “This has been a challenge to all of them, but one of my goals in building this program is to not let the students get comfortable, to continue to push them to do bigger, better, and harder things. All of them have risen to the challenge and have brought this story to life in the way I had hoped they would.”

Bringing life to a character from a novel that is nearly 100 years old is a task that has been embraced by Penn High School senior Suzie Miley.

“It’s been challenge, getting into character, developing the character, how that character speaks … their body language … it’s a challenge, but it’s really, really fun,” Miley said. “It’s been an exciting time, and the cast is phenomenal.”

Qualls said that audiences at Penn’s performances will be treated to the remarkable characterization of author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.

“Gatsby as a whole contains characters in situations that are real to audiences,” Qualls said. “The characters are developed in a way that they are complex and three-dimensional before actors even touch the script. The content of the storyline is a bit over the heads of most high school actors, in terms of being able to portray things authentically, but adult audiences can find connections with the struggles of one or more of the characters.”  

Miley said that high school students will appreciate the engaging production.

“I think the audience will love the passion of the cast, the costumes and the story,” Miley said. “A lot of juniors have read the book as part of their U.S. history curriculum. I think it’s an iconic American story that will come to life through the cast.”

According to Qualls, 10 student-designers created Gatsby’s world that audiences will see on the stage. Qualls has been assisted by two student-stage managers. There are 37 students in the cast, and another 15-to-20 students work backstage, dealing with transitions between scenes, props and costuming.

Penn High School’s technical theatre classes were in charge of the set construction, painting and implementing other tech aspects as well. In all, more than 100 students have been involved in Penn’s production of The Great Gatsby.

According to Miley, the Penn Fine Arts Academy is a vital part of Penn’s curriculum.

“Without Fine Arts, I don’t think we would be the same school that we are,” Miley said. “The choir, theater, dance … it all gives students an opportunity to express themselves in a way that the classroom can’t, or sports can’t. Music, arts, theater … it’s all incredible, and it’s all important to this school.”