Spring 2022 Connections
Maybe you heard the good news already that HCHS’s MIFA team won State? Again? But then maybe, like most of us, you didn’t really understand what it meant—that our MIFA team won state for the 8th time since it started performing in the MIFA One-Act category in 1996. That makes eight state championships in 26 years?!
So what is MIFA anyway? The acronym stands for the “Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association,” and it’s the same organization that puts on competitions in debate every fall, and 12 individual forensic categories like speech and storytelling each spring. But the MIFA One Act competition that we have participated in, and won regularly each February, is well described by Owen Langellier ’23, a MIFA team member this year: “It’s like varsity theatre; you make a 45 minute show that competes against other 45 minute shows from schools around Michigan and you have divisions and get scores—like sports.”
Elle Nieuwsma ’12, HCHS English teacher and one of the two staff directors of the program added a few details: She and her co-director, Justin Dreyer ’10, HC’s Technical Director of Theatre & Digital Media Designer, select a team of 20-25 students through applications, interviews, and auditions in late November. Once selected, the team meets every day after school from 3-6 pm, and usually on Saturdays for 4-5 hours from December-February, minus Christmas break.
In that amount of time, they must work some minor miracles: Take what usually is a 2+ hour play, condense it to a 45-minute complete story line, include all technical aspects of a regular play such as full sets, costumes, make-up, as well as sound and lights, and be able to load and unload all of the equipment of the traveling show onto a truck so that the set and equipment not only does not get forgotten or broken, but also load and unload it as a team in a manner that is polite and professional—all while being judged on said politeness and professionalism—which, by the way, they did so well this year they also won the coveted Golden Truck Award.
Naturally the question, why do this?
”It’s like varsity theatre; you make a 45 minute show that competes against other 45 minute shows from schools around Michigan and you have divisions and get scores—like sports.
Pedagogically, it’s a no brainer: “Educationally, there are four different skills that modern education should teach: communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—and MIFA is all that!” Elle explained.
Plus, you throw together kids with a “range of interests and personalities and skill sets.” Then add in the fact that adult theatre directors are not allowed to help with any of the actual MIFA performances, so neither Elle nor Justin is allowed backstage with a show, can’t help unload or load the truck, can’t help with lights or sound—and you’re teaching students a whole lot of independence, leadership, and self-reliance.
“We’re hands-off and they make the show,” Elle said. “They learn a lot of leadership skills, and during competitions learn hard work and determination as well.”
That being said, Elle typically spends the summer before pouring over directors’ catalogs to find a play she’s excited about, keeping in mind the student talents and potential team for the next winter; then she shortens the script to make a coherent and interesting 45 minute play. Since this year’s chosen play needed to be a comedy, she chose Jane Austen’s Emma.
During the MIFA season, there’s not the usual play luxury of whole set teams, technical/sound/lighting teams, make-up or costume teams due to such a small group of 20 students. Instead, everyone learns how to do a little bit of everything.
”Educationally, there are four different skills that modern education should teach: communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—and MIFA is all that!
“Actors do a lot of onstage work—but some days we’re just building the set, learning how to work power tools. Everybody has a job in the show, but there’s a lot more collaboration,” Elle said.
“I never had used a saw or any tools before!” said stage manager Bebe Mulder ’22. “It’s great knowing how to cut wood correctly, use a staple gun, because of helping out in the scene shop.”
“I’ve learned so many skills, not just as an actress, but through working in costumes, painting the set, building the set, stage managing, and student directing. I’ve learned what it means to jump in at any given moment to learn something new or help someone else. I’ve learned the importance of vulnerability and trust in a community aspect,” Grace McAboy ’22 added.
Inject COVID into their season, with nine team members out with it at one point or another, six at one time, and you have even more impromptu problem solving and creative thinking, students scrambling, filling in for roles and jobs they had to figure out on-the-fly. But most agreed that the pressure cooker this year forced them to focus and work even harder together to pull it off, with huge improvements from one week to the next.
“Over multiple weekends, you see incredible growth and progression of the students as a whole,” Justin explained. “It goes from ‘This is a really terrible piece of theatre we created’—to ‘We actually did do something here!’ and we’re able to see marked steps, growth.”
“Personally, I love watching students grow, their progression in a particular show,” Elle added. “Parents are blown away by how much growth happens as a production, but because it’s a small group of 20-25 people on the team, watching those friendships form, and that community form. You see that on travel weekends especially. It’s special riding a bus with them and being in a hotel and having devotions together.”
Another plus of MIFA is exposing HCHS students to “other kinds of theatre programs, other theatre styles, shows from outside our perspective,” Justin said. “Seeing what works and doesn’t work, hearing stories we haven’t told yet—kids get exposed to so much good theatre.”
Plus, he added “For the last couple of years, we’re the only Christian school in MIFA. It’s an opportunity to represent faith in the arts.”
“We talk about this every time before we travel—that a Christian label is always attached to what we do,” Elle added. “It’s not a Christian story necessarily, but a story that shares deeply Christian truths. To tell a story of hope and truth, put our faith on display and do it well.”
And it’s being noticed: One judge at a regional performance back in 2020, when they performed the Spoon River Anthology even said “I don’t know how you can walk away from this production without a belief in the Divine,” Elle remembered. “There were enough moments in it, enough music that we included that somehow reflected God, and that was just so cool! [These students are] spreading the gospel in a really unique way and in a space where I think we really need to be.”
Students learn to network, getting to know students from other schools, as well: “Although winning State is pretty cool, the best part about MIFA One-Act is meeting teams from all over the state, making new friends with them, and celebrating theater together. It’s so much fun to see all the shows each school puts on, and congratulating them in the hallways afterwards,” Grace added.
”I’ve learned what it means to jump in at any given moment to learn something new or help someone else.
Elle agrees: “MIFA is a competition, but also a festival feel, because students are so supportive of each other,” she said. “I’m still Facebook friends with kids from other schools [from when I was a MIFA student]. Plus, for me as director, to have that network of directors is so helpful! It’s very much a supportive network, really collaborative.”
But hands down, you ask any of the 23 kids on the team this year, and every single kid will tell you they were on the MIFA team for the amazing community that’s more than community—“it’s family,” they all say.
“You can’t find a better community at HC. The people are so welcoming and warm,” Chris Kingdom- Grier ’23 said. “We grew into more than friends—we’re a family.”
“You just get to know kids so well—you get some of that in the classroom, but this is a whole other level,” Elle said. “I just get to be part of their lives in a different way that’s so special. Watching them grow as people, and as theatre artists is the best!”
“MIFA gave me great theater experience, but the things I learned about being on a team, leadership, and the confidence I built during my time on MIFA will be what I carry most into my future after high school,” emailed Grace. “I’ll never forget the family we built each year and the weird, funny, and heartwarming memories I have from them.”
It all came to a head this year during the State performance: Because of the remaining COVID concerns in February, each school’s MIFA team performed in front of only the judges, loaded up their trucks, then headed back to their own assigned classroom to watch on a monitor the other schools’ performances. The HCHS team felt like they performed well, but needed to wait for the judges’ decisions.
”You can’t find a better community at HC. The people are so welcoming and warm. We grew into more than friends—we’re a family.
“Before the results came in, we wanted to come before God and just thank Him,” Chris said. “Noah Tinholt [’23], I think it was, starts playing his guitar, and we just start joining in—worship is a vulnerable thing, you know—and for us to be able to go from a performance on Jane Austen to simply worshiping God—not even knowing if we’d won or not…?” he finished.
And he wasn’t the only one who loved worshipping together:
“It’s just really fun to worship with people who know how to sing really well,” Owen added. “A really special experience to be worshiping with people who both love God, want to worship as much as you do, and know how.”
So that 8th MIFA State win? It is really great. But it’s really just icing on the cake.