Maren Detlefs started Santa Cruz High School as a senior Wednesday and already doesn’t want high school to end. Maren is excited for college, they write, but feels cheated by the pandemic and wants to milk this final year for all the experiences they lost since COVID-19 hit in 2020. Maren is technical director in the school’s theater program and describes how the chaos backstage, the long weeks hot-gluing sets together and the roar of the audience at a final performance offers a sense of belonging the actors will miss dearly when high school ends.
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I’m starting my senior year at Santa Cruz High School and already I don’t want it to end.
COVID-19 robbed me of a year and a half of high school. I left in ninth grade and came back in 11th grade.
I’m excited for the next piece of my life, applying to colleges and deciding where to go, but I want to hold on to Santa Cruz High — particularly the theater program — a little longer. I want to grab back what the pandemic stole. Two years of friendship. Two years of performances. Two years of fun.
I am the technical director for Santa Cruz High’s after-school theater program. That might not sound exciting to some people, but I love it. Theater has been the highlight of my high school career.
I love the buzz backstage before a show. The anticipation. The single-ear-headset static. The gasp as the lights dim. The cues no one knows but me and my crew. The glowing blob of hot glue (just before it burns my fingers) that cements the props. The mad sprint from the booth to backstage when a microphone dies. The echoing laughter at final bows.
I joined theater in ninth grade — fall 2019 — and found my place.
I was the sound technician for the fall play, “Indecent.” It was a fantastic show, but I participated very little. My most memorable interactions with the cast were my fumbling apologies for getting microphone tape stuck in performers’ hair.
Mostly, I trailed silently behind the older techies, learning what to do and trying not to get in the way.
Then COVID started. Before we techies even got involved in our spring musical, “Freaky Friday,” the show — along with everything else — was canceled.
We all went home and began our Zoom lives.
I found it nearly impossible to focus during an online class — even when I cared about the subject. Chemistry was particularly difficult. Lab activities involved watching my teacher perform the experiments, but all I could see was a vague white blob and I couldn’t tell if it was a reflection from the window or the actual experiment. I nodded along as she told us that the fire turns purple when you put potassium in it.
It’s far from the experience of turning fire purple yourself.
Zoom sapped the excitement out of high school, transforming what was supposed to be a pivotal time for socializing and learning about relationships into endless days of monotonous screen time. Instead of paying attention to derivatives in calculus class, I spent hours learning to trap air bubbles in silly putty and reading fantasy novels.
While in lockdown, a small band of us created a video called “Waiting for Macduff” that starred puppets. It was fun and gave us a small taste of theater, but watching it with only five people in an otherwise empty auditorium was rather disappointing.
As soon as we got back to in-person classes, I found it much easier to engage and learn.
I returned as a junior, which I guess makes me somewhat lucky. I have friends who started 10th grade having never entered the school. They had to learn where everything on campus was as if they were ninth graders.
For those a year ahead, it was worse. Most people agree junior year is the most challenging, and they had to manage it remotely. And the seniors missed prom, graduation, yearbook signing, all those moments you spend years looking forward to, all the fun they carry.
Thinking about them, I realize I hit a sweet spot.
Except when it came to tech.
During COVID-19, all the techies graduated. They took their knowledge and experience with them. When we went back to campus last year, I was the only student in the school who knew how to work the sound board. And my knowledge was rudimentary.
Suddenly — despite having done only one production — I was expected to know everything in the tech booth. I squeaked by for the fall play, “Mr. Burns,” on my little bit of experience, but the musical was new territory for me.
We selected “The Little Mermaid” and, despite the stress of my inexperience, it ended up one of the most fulfilling and fun experiences of my life. In fact, it taught me how stress can be fun when you are working with people you care about on a project everyone loves.
This time, I didn’t stand behind older techies. I was the oldest techie.
I worked with my friends to construct sets and gather props. We twisted chicken wire around a bench, then used papier-mache, paint and duct tape to create a rock for Ariel (the lead). My fingers were cut and raw and burned with globs of glue, but I will always remember the way we worked together as a team and transformed a script on paper into a magical live performance.
During the final week — known as tech week — there were moments when I wondered how we could pull it off. Some actors still didn’t know their dances. Key props — like Ursula’s shell and King Triton’s trident — were missing.
But on opening night, I was in awe.
When Ursula went on stage — dazzling the audience with the gown and light-up tentacles our 11th grade costume director had made by hand (and had finished opening night) — and sang in a voice that reverberated throughout the auditorium, we techies cheered as loud as the crowd.
One of the most special things about our program is that it’s mostly student-run. We have an adult supervisor, but all our shows are student-directed and managed. This creates community. We know each other’s weaknesses and which line each person most often fumbles or gets right. We know the show’s rhythm, and we recognize small moments the audience misses — like how the curtain opens, who is off-center, who is running the spotlight. It’s like a secret language.
During tech week, we have dinner together every night.
It’s magical to feel such a sense of belonging.
It’s also hard when it ends. I could not be prouder of what we accomplished with that musical. Many of us cried on closing night.
Today, that cast is dispersed. Off to college.
We’ll start over soon, bringing in a new group and a new cast dynamic with them.
Somehow — I still can’t believe it — I’ve started what will be my last year. Just two more shows.
Already, I need to start preparing for my departure. I need to teach the new crew, give them the training I never had. (If you’re an underclassman at Santa Cruz High School and are interested in theater, please come find me!)
I’m planning to continue doing tech in college, but I’ll always miss what could have been at Santa Cruz High. I’m applying to many small, liberal arts schools outside of California and am hoping to study linguistics or creative writing, but I’ll definitely stay involved with theater.
I’ve met some of my best friends backstage and can’t wait to work on this year’s productions with them.
I’m going to milk as much as I can out of my last year and out of this year’s fall play, “Sherlock Holmes,” which will run Oct. 21, 22, 28 and 29.
I hope everything runs smoothly, but I know that inevitably, when the sets don’t stand up and my hands are raw, burned and covered in hot glue, my friends in the theater will be there with a box of Band-Aids.
Maren Detlefs is a senior at Santa Cruz High School. If they ever finish their Common Application essay for college, they hope to leave California and study linguistics or creative writing. They recently completed a summer internship at Lookout.