Back in the fall of 2018, I was searching for a musical to produce with my Introduction to Theater students at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona. My students range in age from 7th to 12th grade. Some have lots of theatre experience and some have none. The challenge for me is to provide an opportunity for all my students to feel comfortable exploring theatre.
As teens, they deal with the ups and downs of life at home and at school, so when they come into my classroom, I work hard to provide a relevant, inclusive, supportive group atmosphere so that every teen can feel safe, accepted and free to be themselves. I believe when there is trust and mutual respect developed in the classroom it results in depth of learning and depth of understanding of oneself and others.
I stumbled upon Andrea Green’s The Return of Halley’s Comet when reviewing the options on the Samuel French website. The story is powerful and resonated with my teens.
When non-verbal strange looking Halien (alien) beings descend into the town of Centuryville, they are feared and seen as threats to society. As reflected in the song “They Don’t Belong Here”, many of the citizens want to capture and “eliminate” them, but others show compassion and the desire to communicate with the Haliens, as expressed in “We’ve Gotta Find a Way”.
My students understand well what it feels like to be excluded or misunderstood, so the topic of alienation, intolerance and bullying presented in the musical was something they wanted to better understand through the theater process. They also wanted to explore how to find acceptance and a common ground for working together with others who may be different.
The life lessons my students learned in presenting the show are valuable to me as a teacher. When I asked my students if they had ever been bullied, all of them said yes. When I asked if they had ever bullied anyone – including ganging up on someone in order to be popular accepted by a clique – or stood by watching someone be bullied, everyone admitted that at some time at some age, they had also bullied someone. These humbling admissions gave them insight into their characters.
The Return of Halley’s Comet is an outstanding large-cast musical. Including multiple roles with character names, this show offers over 40 players with at least one spoken line. In addition to the lead characters with solos, there are many opportunities for ensemble members to have a small sung solo within a larger number. This piece is a perfect choice to give performers their first experience with a sung solo passage or spoken line.
The songs are uplifting, tuneful, toe-tapping and memorable, offering a variety of styles within a dynamic musical theater framework. Upon a first hearing, my students left the room humming the tunes. The music is very accessible to beginning and developing singers. The songs are expressive of character and objective, very clear to act and direct. It was exhilarating to watch my students grow as individuals in these characters. Some of my students at first felt they couldn’t relate to their character and objectives, but while working on the show they made self-discoveries that they used for presenting their character.
It was a special treat to have composer/playwright Andrea Green fly from her home in Philadelphia to see our production of The Return of Halley’s Comet and conduct a musical theater workshop. Some students were concerned that Andrea might be critical and judgmental of them, but our time with her disarmed those thoughts. Andrea’s genuine warmth and caring comes through in her writing and in person. With my cast she was sympathetic and empowering.
The Return of Halley’s Comet is written with a love of people and a passion for empathy, understanding and acceptance. It has a meaningful impact on performers and audiences alike and is perfect for large school or community theatre ensemble productions.
This show was transformative and a joy to work on.
Below are quotes from my students about their experience working on The Return of Halley’s Comet:
“My favorite theme? Loving, no matter what.” -9th grader
“The theme of acceptance resonated for me because I’ve struggled with conditions my whole life that have made me different. I think that accepting something unfamiliar and different can be scary.” -8th grader
“Intolerance was an important theme for me because it is something I possess and fell victim to a lot. It is something that used to oppress me as well.” -11th grader
“The theme of acceptance stayed with me. I’ve always kind of felt like an outcast because of all of my mental problems.” -8th grader
“I will remember Andrea Green because at first I was really scared to meet her, but she was so nice and made me feel less intimidated. I will remember when we all sang by the piano. I felt so close to everyone.” -8th grader
“I will remember how strong Andrea Green’s attitude towards the meaning of the play was. All of her passion taught me about having respect for work and taking things seriously.” -11th grader
“Something that resonated most with me was the hatred for something or someone different. Everyone is unique and we should all be treated equally.” -9th grader
As an educator, getting to know my students better, as they got to know themselves and each other better, was a very valuable and unexpected gift of working on this show. As a performing ensemble we all grew more accepting of each other.
The Return of Halley’s Comet was a unique theatrical experience.
(credit: Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun)