It’s been a long road for Hammond Academy of the Performing Arts in Hammond, Indiana. The Academy was established in 2010 as part of Morton High School. In the 1980s, Greg Easton, the current principal of Morton, teamed with various neighboring teachers and administrators to start a performing arts school in Hammond. Among the schools in the town, Morton was chosen because it had the best facility to house such an arts program but that didn’t mean the plan would be without pitfalls. Morton High School is a Title-1 school, meaning many of the students receive free or reduced lunch and services and face socio-economic challenges.
While teacher salaries are paid for by the district, the program itself must be self-sufficient. “Everything we spend, we make,” explains Easton. Everything from fundraising for the productions to grant applications must be done by the faculty at the school. These efforts are led by Scott Sowinski, the Director at Hammond Academy. His role is not just limited to the artistic side of the process; “It’s like I’m a huge production manager but also have to do discipline: call parents, figure out schedules,” explains Sowinski, laying out his duty to keep an eye on the educational component as well, “we have to make sure that they have 40 hours of core competency.” Sowinski regularly explains to parents who are unfamiliar with the curriculum of a performing arts academy that if a student is struggling in a subject like English, they cannot be pulled out of their dance or music classes as they are an equal part of the student’s graduation plan.
Just a year shy of their ten-year anniversary, Hammond Academy’s theatre program has produced some respectable titles that you would find in a lot of high school’s production history. Sowinski, however, wanted to try something a bit less conventional that would also be “accessible to the kids’ current abilities and sensibilities.” The school’s fastest growing program is their rock band program so Sowinski wanted something that tapped into that interest. In his search, he came across We Will Rock You School Edition.
We Will Rock You is the record-breaking rock musical that features the music of Queen. It played in London’s West End for 12 years and has had productions all across the world. The plot of We Will Rock You is the stuff of space operas and YA novels. In a post-apocalyptic society, Globalsoft Corporation rules the world with an iron fist and everyone is reliant on technology and conformity and musical instruments are forbidden and rock music is a legend. Two young, free-thinking rebels lead a revolution of Bohemians to bring down Globalsoft and spread the power of music and individuality throughout the land. Reviewing the musical, Sowinski and his co-director, Kathleen Dominiak-Treasure, saw a lot of themes they felt their students would connect with. “Every single kid this age can relate to the whole idea of that there’s something more than our phones,” Dominiak-Treasure relays in her interview with TRW, “[more] than just games, than just the internet. There’s human-ness.”
Sowinski contacted Jim Hoare, the Executive Vice President for Education and Outreach at TRW. Sowinski explained the school’s situation, their Title-1 status and that where other schools may have budgets in the five figures for shows, Hammond had a budget of five thousand for this production. Hoare, being a former teacher himself, empathized with the problems that faced Hammond Academy. With the blessing of TRW President & CEO Steve Spiegel, Hoare offered Sowinski and Hammond Academy a grant. The school paid a reduced royalty fee and instead of being charged for physical books, Sowinski’s team received digital files for free so long as they handled printing costs themselves.
With the rights secured, Sowinski, Dominiak-Treasure, and the team at Hammond got to work. With their incredibly diverse student body, Sowinski wanted to make sure that the school’s make-up was represented in the casting. When he wanted to flip the gender of the character of Commander Khashoggi, so that senior Felicita Velez could play the role, he reached out to TRW and received permission in twenty minutes. “TRW is by far the most responsive and communicative,” Sowinski effusively expressed when asked about working with licensing companies as a relatively young program.
While past production of We Will Rock You tend toward grand production values, the team at Hammond wanted to try something stripped down in terms of sets and costumes. Dominiak-Treasure, who also choreographed We Will Rock You, wanted an industrial look to the stage, removing the legs at both sides of the stage, and populating the set with actor blocks of various shapes and sizes. With a cast of over eighty students (yes, 8-0), a complex set would detract from the overall vision.
Sowinski also reached out to Guy Rhodes, an established lighting designer based out of Chicago, to help create the rock show feel required for We Will Rock You. With the minimal styles of the costumes and set, Rhodes and Hammond Academy could experiment more with lighting. One of their boldest choices was placing five-foot ground strip-lights under columns of crinkled screen-door material that created a futuristic, metallic backdrop.
Like any production, Hammond’s We Will Rock You faced unforeseen problems. Before one of the performances, the drainage pipe broke causing rain from across the entire building to deposit into the theatre for three straight hours. Jamarion Evans, the student portraying male lead Galileo Figaro, said that this was the greatest challenge of the entire show. “The days that we missed and having to push even harder,” he claps for emphasis on the later phrase, “to make up for the days that we missed…instead of giving 110%, giving 220% to make sure that our show got finished.” Sowinski complimented the dedication of his cast, their willingness to go the extra mile. He shared the story that one student had to walk three miles after rehearsal to get back home as his parents work nights and are unable to pick him up.
Sowinski wanted to ensure that the entire school was involved and invested in the production. Before any given performance, examples of Hammond’s other creative output filled the theater’s lobby. Students, parents, and other patrons could examine the art program’s projects related to the show while the school’s rock band played in the background. TRW’s own Jim Hoare was in attendance and expressed his admiration of the school’s cross-discipline display.
When it came to the show’s performance, all involved expressed how impressed they were with the musical and how fun and exciting the whole affair was. Not only was We Will Rock You the best-attended musical Hammond has produced in years but it had left an indelible impression on the cast and crew. Of the seven leads actors we had a chance to speak with, each one of them made a point of expressing how much fun it was to rehearse and perform We Will Rock You. That it helped solidify for them how much collaboration, dedication, and perseverance it takes to make a show happen. Tamia Crawley, who plays Scaramouche, summed up the message of the play beautifully: “Be yourself. Let yourself shine. Don’t let anything stop you in what you want to achieve.”