Ian Erbe and Caroline Ragland in Austin High’s exclusive production of “Spring Awakening”
By Bobbie Sawyer
It’s 10 o’clock on a bright June morning and while many students are soaking up the first weeks of summer freedom, those in the Austin High School theater department are already hard at work.
On stage the cast and crew, known collectively as the Red Dragon Players, gather in a circle before a simplistic set design consisting of six black chairs and an array of meticulously hand-painted cubes the students designed over the weekend. Led by co-director Annie Dragoo, the Red Dragon Players start with a ritualistic yawn and stretch and soon the theater is filled with the hum of vocal exercises as the students prepare for one of their most important performances to date. In just a few short days, the Red Dragon Players will take the stage at the annual Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska to perform for an audience of over 2,000 at the largest high school theater conference in the world.
Austin High School became one of only ten schools to be selected to perform at the festival after impressing judges from Music Theatre International at the school’s February production of “Spring Awakening: School Edition.”
But the Red Dragon Players are no strangers to success. The group recently won first place at the 2012 University Interscholastic League (UIL) One Act Play Contest, their second consecutive UIL state championship and third trophy in four years.
Billy Dragoo, co-director of the Red Dragon Players and head of the fine arts department at Austin High, said he attributes the group’s success to the school’s rich theatre tradition and the determination of the students to continue that legacy.
“I think pride takes over,” Billy Dragoo said. “It’s like Westlake’s football program. It’s always been good and you don’t want to be the first class that’s not very good.”
The theater department was formed in 1908, before Austin High School had a mascot. In 1929 the student thespians deemed themselves the Red Dragon Players to reflect the school’s maroon colors.
Over the years the theater program has produced nearly 400 plays. Zachary Scott, a native Austin actor who starred opposite Joan Crawford in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce,” was once among the department’s members.
As co-directors of the Red Dragon Players, husband and wife Billy and Annie Dragoo have made a life out of fostering the growth of the historic theater department and shaping the lives of its many student members.
Annie Dragoo, who describes herself as “Mary Poppins — firm but kind,” said her relationship with her students is based on trust and open communication.
“I’m the kind of person who’s not going to say ‘That’s really good’ if it’s not,” Annie Dragoo said. “They appreciate the candor and the honesty that both my husband and I give them because we want them to be better and they know that.”
Billy Dragoo, who’s taught at Austin High since 1993, said a large part of his approach to teaching is allowing his students to foster their own creativity.
“Even though first and foremost I’m their teacher and director, almost equal to that is the fact that I’m their collaborator and we’re all trying to make art,” Billy Dragoo said.
Katie Berlin, a recent Austin High School graduate who plans to major in theater at the University of North Texas, said her time with the Red Dragon Players has been one of the most formative and rewarding experiences in her life.
“I think through this department I’ve learned to work harder than anything else in my life,” Berlin said. “I’ve learned how to have a good work ethic. I’ve learned how to work with all types of different people. I think that’s one of the great things about theater. There are so many different types of people from all areas of life and you all come together to put on a great production.”
Berlin said she attributes the Red Dragon Players’ success to the constant encouragement of the Dragoos.
“I love them both. They’ve taught me so much and given me so many opportunities I could never repay them for,” Berlin said. “We have this legacy to maintain. There’s an expectation that we work our butts off. There’s no other option.”
Those expectations are certainly met. The Red Dragon Players clock up to 21 hours of rehearsal time on a given week.
“A social life, for me, comes second,” Berlin said. “This is what I’m passionate about. This is what I love.”
Now the students’ tireless efforts are turned toward “Spring Awakening: School Edition” a musical based on the 1892 play “Spring Awakening”, which focuses on a group of teenagers in late-19th century Germany struggling with questions about sexuality. Though the production has been slightly edited for a high school audience, it features more mature themes than your average high school musical fare. But Annie Dragoo said the community response has been one of overwhelming support.
“The parents have been absolutely, totally supportive,” Annie Dragoo said. “They’ve backed up the kids. We had sold out audiences in December and February. We haven’t had any controversy. It’s been unbelievable.”
Felipe Ramirez, an Austin High senior who won Best Actor at the UIL One Act Play Contest, plays the troubled Moritz in “Spring Awakening.” Ramirez said taking part in such an unflinching portrayal of teenage life has been therapeutic.
“I think it’s really cool to be able to portray the characters that are feeling this,” Ramirez said. “In a way it’s kind of like blowing off your own steam, playing these characters, because you might be going through the same things and have the same experience.”
Berlin said she believes the successes of the Red Dragon Players’ are validation for a section of extracurricular activity often lacking in funding and recognition: the arts.
“I think everyone, especially in Texas, puts football on a pedestal and sports on a pedestal,” Berlin said. “I can see it both ways because I used to play sports and my brother plays sports, but I think the arts have to do a lot more to get that sort of recognition. I think what we’ve been doing is showing people we can do just as well as any other organization.”
The Red Dragon Players end every rehearsal and performance by locking hands and reciting their motto “excellencia consuetudo est,” meaning “excellence is habit.” The phrase reflects the time, dedication and passion of each member in the long running theater troupe, past and present. By remembering the past, the Red Dragon Players pay tribute to all those who’ve made Austin High School’s theater department an institution and lay the foundation for a new generation to continue their hard-earned legacy.
“I love history,” Billy Dragoo said. “I’m constantly reminding the kids that they stand on the shoulders of the kids that came before them. That sets a level. Hopefully long after I’m gone the level will still be regarded as something to aspire to. I think it will be.”