By Tommy Block
Across the three nights that it ran in the Raymond Moore Auditorium in late February, the Lake Forest High School talent show (safely and pleasantly rolling over its Saturday Night Live theme from last year) averaged about two and a half hours a performance, a duration that its plethora of contributors intended to fill entirely.
As usual, the people behind the production (which was largely masterminded by director Matt and producer Tammy Kerouac) knew how to handle their audience. After all, we here at the junction of Lake Bluff and Lake Forest — the public to which the show was presented — are the most demanding (and predictable) of media mongers.
Even so, it’s incredible for a production of such caliber to be this flexible; the amount of time it can take for a running crew to swap out a set — which, with drum kits, amps, and various other amenities, can get pretty finicky — is indefinite. This poses the dreary issue of dead air between acts, and the students manning the stage have a harder time detecting the problem than the parents and kids observing it do.
In other words, it’s easier said than done.
While these awkward transitions probably wouldn’t be long enough to dilute the entertainment value completely, the talent show committee — made up of parents and students alike — have grown comfortable with the “too big to fail” model. It’s a rather indirect remedy; out of the high school’s multitude of theatrics, the talent show is one of the hardest to direct, mostly because it has been formatted to be one of the most diverse. In addition to the natural spectrum of character that the live acts bring to the stage, modest but equally intrinsic ornaments have been worked into the show to achieve a finely tuned blend of fluidity and cohesion for when and where the need might appear.
It was this flurry of activity that helped to mold a lasting image of the unique event. The pit band, stationed on a makeshift balcony toward the back of the stage and alert to the instruction of the stage crew via headset, came in handy as a quick fill while the techies reset lights and sound during shifts. In other memorable segments, emcees Matt Barrett and Eric Spehlman — both students of the Class of 2017 — offered their semi-off-the-cuff, “just happened to walk onto the stage” type of humor with brief, spontaneous pseudo-skits (I liked them, as I’m sure many people did, but they did a thorough job reminding the crowd just how live this thing actually was).
Sure, the talent show tries to fill up the time with anything (and everything) it has, but it all works to its advantage, with last month’s being no exception; remarkably, despite the stress involved with synchronizing its several moving parts (and the two weeks of rehearsal that it took to do it), this talent show thrived on a loose, “go with the flow” vibe, the notion that a couple of kids decided to throw something together with their own little niches and had a good time doing it. The key to the fun that the talent show could — and did — provide was that it almost didn’t feel like it was there. Nothing felt like it was prepared.
“Make America Again” – a 2017 film by Lake Forest High School Senior Will Murphy
In fact, it may have struck some as odd when — beckoned by the closing of the first student act, the simultaneous dimming of the spotlights from up in the booth, and the well-deserved applause from the house that trailed behind — a soft, mechanical whirring noise subtly but distinctly punctuated the silence that followed.
From above, a retractable screen — which had temporarily been stored somewhere from the rafters — slowly began to unravel. Nearly a minute passed until its base came to reach its final resting place about six or seven feet above the stage.
The audience collectively held their breath as the screen hung blank and motionless, having suddenly acquired the room’s center of gravity with a singular, monolith-like pull. It seemed like an antithesis to what the show had embraced just moments before; where the opening act — an interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” championed by lead singers Lily Gould and Will Johnson — had been scattered, open-concept and durable, the very presence of this wide sheet of canvas — about fifteen to twenty feet across — seemed to be calculated, programmed to work on the dime. Very quickly, the talent show had pivoted from a foolproof jam session to an ambitious challenge in coordination.
These few seconds felt like the longest of the night. They were also the most effective — the screen was almost a metaphor for the audience’s suspense, dangling in front of their very eyes.
Through the eyes of the talent show, it was one of the oldest tricks in the book.
“Video as a live production piece — as in shooting it live and projecting it on screen — has been around for a long, long time,” Mr. Steve Douglass, head of Lake Forest’s New Media program, mentions about the integration of a digital component to the traditionally live talent show.
It was around the time that he came to be a teacher at the high school, about twelve to thirteen years ago, when film began to be shown in — and grow synonymous with — the community’s talent show. Still, it’s true that Mr. Douglass hardly instituted the building blocks that gave rise to the now thriving and popular filmmaking and editing class, an elective available to all Lake Forest students regardless of their year. If there ever was a pioneer of the educational studio who passed through our doors, it was Dave Miller, the widely beloved teacher who practically founded the course — known back then as Telecom — several years ago. Still, in the face of mechanical issues, predated technology, and the painstaking woes of film on tape, videos were barred from accessing the truly immersive film experience that our modern concept of the talent show takes for granted.
With the abundant resources of today’s educational environment — including advanced cameras, precise recording material, and smooth handling tools — and a hefty handful of promising youths eager to lend their help toward the talent show behind the scenes, Mr. Douglass assures that there’s no better time as an educator and as a team to be fostering what he considers to be the future of entertainment.
“The show was amazing, but there was a lot of down time, pit band,” Mr. Douglass says of the trends he noticed within the talent show during his first few years here. “We started fine-tuning that… like, ‘there needs to be a little more fun to that, a little more brevity.’ It used to be that maybe six or seven films would be able to make the show. Now things have flipped, where the director comes to me and says, ‘Hey, we would like to have twelve videos in the show.’
“It’s amazing. There’s nothing like getting a live response to your work when you went through a long process to get a project you’re really proud of, especially in this day and age where it’s all about your individual experience. There’s something to that.”
Anybody lucky enough to have made it to the theater in time for the first short film of the show — Quinn Dailey’s witty and spot-on spoof of John Hughes’ teen classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — would have to admit to the beauty behind Mr. Douglass’ madness. Within his leading few shots — flickering from the high-tech projector hanging directly above the audience’s heads — Mr. Dailey’s fine cinematography and lightning-fast directorial judgment played off of old-school nostalgia as well as the crowd’s sense of humor. The two-minute time constraint — placed on each film entry by the talent show committee — was all that the efficient filmmaker needed in order to get his viewers hooked on the idea of a live-digital hybrid show, partly inspired by SNL itself.
Sure enough, Quinn’s film was the first of many that would grace the screen that night, popping up through quaint, predetermined time slots between live acts. It was the most ebullient way for a double-edged sword to creep sinisterly into the show. The audience wanted more … and yet they wanted more.
The videos — which, while overseen and approved by Mr. Douglass, are entirely constructed from top (the pitch) to bottom (the final peer and teacher critique) by the students — run on an entirely different dynamic than the live acts do. The former are inherently engaging, for they feel the most familiar; jazz and dancing have always been among the most accessible forms of classicism, and guitar solos and cymbal crashes have been spilling out of garages for decades. As long as there’s a way to get the crowd’s attention, live acts will provoke enough of a shared social recognition to carry through.
There is a more immediate — and transparent — method of measuring the success of the talent show videos. They are by and large comedies (they can’t be much else, considering the Friday night atmosphere they inhabit), and must therefore make the viewer laugh. In Mr. Douglass’ words, there’s an 8-to-88 range that the videos must nail to get the thumbs up from the audience, meaning that each video must resonate with everyone from children to grandparents. Those are nearly nine decades of age accounted for across the total occupancy of the theater — it’s a lifespan that these high school students must fully analyze in order to solidify an intelligent, universal truth known to all.
This is about as hard to do as it sounds. Even if a video can make it through the rigorous selection process that all filmmakers must undergo in order to see their entries run past the committee, there’s still the main target audience, the people in the theater who ultimately determine if it lands. The crowd can’t see the weeks of organization and scripting that have gone behind a meager two minutes of film, which are absorbed in a flash, nor can the filmmaker do anything to adjust their product past its final submission like a live act can. Films can make the show a lot more fun, but it can also allow the people watching it to be a lot more honest. Sometimes the videos don’t work, and that’s that.
By the time senior filmmaker Will Murphy’s short film jolted from the projector and onto the screen midway through the second act, all bets were off. This video, just as with any of those before it, would need to earn the crowd’s trust from scratch.
Out of the entire audience, no one could have felt as anxious as Murphy himself — he had squeezed into the packed house on the last night that the show was available.
“Oh, I was shocked that my video got accepted in the first place!” Murphy grins to me in an empty cafeteria a week or so after the talent show has taken place, fiddling with a curious band around his right wrist tied together by what looks to be a fish hook.
The article of clothing is his own, personalized token of the outdoors — his love for fishing is not so much a borderline obsession as it is a symbol of his philosophy. It’s so integral to his personality that he documented it in a visual autobiography for his New Media class last semester — filmmaking is another passion of his.
His teacher, Mr. Douglass, almost surely thinks of the project when he hears the name of the dedicated student he has been fortunate enough to call his own for the past four years.
“He’s really what epitomizes what we have at New Media,” the LFHS staff member beams. “Will’s growth over the years and into that role model is nothing short of amazing. Literally, I’ve heard the octaves in his voice increase,” he laughs, half baffled at the fact.
Indeed, it’s hard for Murphy to trace the development he’s undertaken without circling back to filmmaking somehow; he recalls a memory of when he — surely no older than six or seven at the time — and his younger sister whipped out their house’s camera one weekend and, with the help of their mom, attempted to make a shot-for-shot remake of Jurassic Park (if anything else, they managed to fit in their child-size Fisher-Price tractor as a prop for a brief chase scene).
It’s because of these experiences that Murphy more or less hit the ground running by his freshman year of New Media, a course which he’s continued to be a loyal part of through his senior year (he’s one of the only — if not the only — person at Lake Forest High School who has taken all eight semesters of the class). Even as one of the oldest and accomplished students in the school, Murphy sets his goals to a high bar. One can only imagine what he held himself to three years ago, even when he could be considered to be far ahead of the game.
“I had always loved watching movies, but before I took the class, when I saw what good directors would make, I would just think to myself how fun it would be to make one of those films,” Murphy reminisces. “It isn’t until you get smaller in scale when you start to notice the process in it. It’s a lot of work — if movies were easy to make, we’d all be making them.
“I was actually lost my first semester [of New Media] — I’d never done any editing with film or anything like that. If not for the TAs [veteran students who facilitate the process of getting newcomers up to speed] my class had, like Will Conover and Spencer Welt, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now. It was second semester when I started realizing what the class actually was. I was expecting a more chill thing, like, ‘oh, we’re just going to hang out and watch a couple of movies.’ It wasn’t like that at all. There were responsibilities, there were deadlines.”
Will’s revelation marked one of the first times that he employed the trait he’s now praised for: he almost never waits for obstacles to free up for him — he anticipates them before they even have the advantage. It’s a critical skill for someone enrolled in a fast-paced class like New Media, though Murphy doesn’t stop at the bare minimum. For him, as well as many of his peers, the talent show isn’t simply an outlet for student work (which Will Murphy’s videos have been accepted into for each of the four years that he’s been in the class) — rather, it’s only the most publicized of the many occasions on which New Media students have lugged around their hulking equipment and captured some of the high school’s most iconic scenes, from basketball games to award ceremonies.
Mr. Murphy understands the delicate importance of community and the impact that a young voice can have, whether it be a short visual gag to make a college kid laugh or — as Will did in his junior year — a sincere sign of appreciation toward the efforts of House of Peace in North Chicago, an organization serving victims of domestic abuse.
“It’s okay to roll over and help other people,” Mr. Douglass says of Will’s leadership in the classroom. “So many people have named him as the reason they want to be a TA. He’s that quiet kid, but yet, he’s made so much of an impact by helping to solve problems, to be willing to take time off his project to help others’.”
It’s no wonder why Mr. Murphy would be intimidated by the sheer quantity of people counting on his video to hit home with the audience on that Saturday night. They would be proud of him either way, of course — only succeeding by his own standards would bring him to be pleased.
You’d think the last thing he would want to do would be to let a bull run wild in a China shop (or should I say, “Chy-na” shop). The analogy sounds a bit intense until you get deep enough into the film, as an unsuspecting crowd would eventually confirm; a semi-fictional newsreel swallows the screen for the first few beats, blaring the infamously and hotly topical headline that Lake Forest High School hasn’t ranked as high as some may have (unrealistically) hoped.
Cutting the camera away at the perfect time, Murphy (having interestingly casted himself in a rather polarizing acting role) picks up a remote, pauses what we learn to be a television, and hunches over on his couch in thought — all the while wearing what is unmistakingly a Trump wig.
“Lake Forest High School… not bad at all,” Murphy (or… President Trump) sneers as if his tongue has been drenched in snake oil. “However… I think I can make it number one.”
To Will’s delight, the audience around him nearly rolled out of their seats in laughter.
“I was like, wow, it’s been like this every year. This is how many people have gone to see it,” Will nods in the cafeteria, partly to me, partly to himself. It was the first time he’d gone to any production of our talent show.
How did he get away with poking fun of Donald Trump, a figure that, within only one month of his inexplicable inauguration, has become one of the most divisive people in American history?
Perhaps it’s because he let the viewers decide how to read into the video. Supporters probably found humor in Murphy’s no-shortcuts attitude, addressing the fact that Trump would never actually settle for number one; opponents most likely enjoyed Murphy’s portrayal of Trump’s blissful ignorance, in full agreement that the president probably doesn’t know what the number means.
Or maybe the audience just came together during those two minutes, because, well… Will Murphy is Will Murphy.
It’s alarming to think that this young man, who all too recently cut that fan tape of Jurassic Park, is already looking into DePaul’s film program in planning for the next stage in his life.
“No, I haven’t made it official, though I probably should,” Will Murphy thinks aloud, weighing whether he wants to acknowledge that the end to his high school career is fast approaching with graduation. “All I know is that I’m going to try out all sorts of stuff, just to get a taste of it all, whether it’s technical studies or operating cameras or whatever. The thing is pretty open-ended, where I might or might not end up doing the things I’m thinking about doing. I don’t know where I fall in exactly yet, but I know that I like it as a whole.”
He’ll find his place out there, just like he did here. It’s the bittersweetness of it all; though Lake Forest High School will lose one of its best and brightest with the departure of Will Murphy, the world will gain another.
At least he’ll remember the little high school talent show that helped him along the way.
This article was written by Tommy Block, a film fanatic and senior at Lake Forest High School. It was first published in The Forest Scout.