By Brett Marshall
Now in her eighth year as Head Director of the Garden City High School drama department, Barbara Hilt has overseen more than 30 productions.
The variety of plays and musicals would be difficult to describe, but earlier this year, Hilt and eventually the students who are in the productions, had the rare opportunity to review a musical that had never been performed at a high school in the United States.
“Miss You Like Hell” had been an off-Broadway musical first performed several years earlier, and in the spring of 2019, Hilt was at a conference in Lincoln, Neb., to look at potential productions for her GCHS students.
“It was the International Thespian Festival and there were tables with many licensing companies,” Hilt recalled of her first exposure to the musical. “I asked them if they have anything that fits Latinx, Vietnamese, Filipino material that we could do as a show for possible competition in which the students could connect.”
After reviewing a number of possibilities, Hilt selected “Miss You Like Hell,” and began discussions with Theatrical Rights Worldwide to consider contracting the production for the fall of 2019.
“Jim Hoare (TRW Executive Vice President) told me there at the festival that I should look at the script, and once I did, I felt it would be a perfect fit for us,” Hilt said. “The relationship of a mother and daughter, their struggles and then the immigration issues were powerful stories that we could tell.”
Casting, as always, is an important element in any successful production and in this case, Hilt needed a lead to play the mother (Beatriz) who was fluent in Spanish and the other lead to play the daughter (Olivia) who could speak some Spanish.
Monica Aguilar, a GCHS senior, earned the role of Beatriz while junior Adriana Mendoza had a successful audition to play the role of Olivia. It seemed like the two were a match made in musical heaven.
Aguilar, a veteran of nine previous plays, has an alto voice for the musical elements while Mendoza, who had performed in just one previous play, has a voice in the low first/high second soprano range.
The two also are members of the GCHS show choir and at Hilt’s urging, began to spend a lot of time away from rehearsals getting to know each other better. From early summer to the production of mid-September, the two became good friends.
“Adriana has grown so much through the past several months,” Aguilar said a couple of days after the third and final performance of the play. “She was a little timid at first but once we began final rehearsals and then the performances she just began to really shine. Our relationship has grown and she’s now one of my good friends.”
Mendoza, who self-described herself as shy, said the experience opened up many avenues for her to explore her own relationship with her mother.
“Olivia is a rebellious teen (age 16 in the show), and I’ve never thought of myself as rebellious,” Mendoza said. “There was one time where me and my mom got into an argument about something and we didn’t talk for several days, but at the end, we had a big hug and we know we love each other.”
Aguilar said telling the story of the stormy relationship of Beatriz and Olivia was a privilege, especially considering that immigration is such a big issue in the Garden City and southwest Kansas area.
“I see it as an opportunity for the Garden City community to explore its thoughts on immigration, as well as the family relationships of a mother and daughter,” Aguilar said. “I’ve had several women come up to me and thanking us for telling their story.”
Mendoza, too, said it had been a rare opportunity to explore her personality and relationships as a high school student.
“It’s been an honor to be the first school (believed to be the first in the U.S.) to perform this play as a School Edition,” Mendoza said.
Hilt said once the decision had been made to perform the play, she and her sisters Robyn and Alice, reviewed the script and then began making early changes to remove adult themes and languages without compromising the message of the play. Students, too, were able to put in their ideas to make the script fit a younger audience, Barbara Hilt said.
“Once we had the script to our satisfaction we had to send it back to TRW and the original writers to their review,” Barbara Hilt said. “They liked everything we had done, so we knew we had something that we could go with.”
Aguilar said it didn’t take her long to feel a strong connection with the script.
“Towards the beginning I just fell in love with the script because it provided me a chance to be a voice for those who didn’t have a voice,” Aguilar said. “It’s a story that is related to a lot of people.”
Aguilar said there were many challenges as she learned more about Beatriz, and playing a mother as a high school senior wasn’t exactly the easiest part.
“Beatriz is a mess, and quite honestly I was clueless who Beatriz was, but the week of the show, it just kind of became clear how I wanted to portray her,” Aguilar said. “There were not just physical borders between Beatriz and Olivia, but also emotional and physical borders.”
Mendoza said she had many challenges in becoming Olivia, who in many ways is much different than she is in her everyday life.
“Playing such a strong character, I just tried to imagine myself as her,” Mendoza said. “I think once the final week of rehearsals arrived, I was able to put myself in Olivia’s place and just tried to play the part of her character that was needed.”
For Barbara Hilt, the production was a monumental challenge, yet one that came with opportunity and many rewards.
“How often do you get to be the one to do something for the first time?” she asked. “It could very well be that any future high school that wants to perform the school edition would have the chance to write their own script or use ours and that would be incredibly rewarding.”
Hilt said that it was always her objective in any play to simply tell a story and let the audience leave with their own thoughts and feelings.
“We don’t want to try and convince the audience of anything, other than just telling a story,” Hilt said. “This was the story of an intense and troubled relationship between a mother and daughter. Whether you agree or not, I think people can take away a greater understanding of each other.”
Hilt had high praise for her two lead actresses as well as the remainder of the cast, who performed sophisticated choreography elements during the show.
“I think they did an excellent job expressing who each one was,” Hilt said of Aguilar and Mendoza’s performances. “Beatriz is more the child at times, and there’s a sense of youthfulness and maturity and that’s difficult to ask of high school actresses. Olivia sometimes acted older, and the reading she’s done indicates she’s self-educated.”
Aguilar said she had not read the script prior to the audition, which occurred on just a single day back in the early summer.
“I was instantly drawn to it,” Aguilar said of the script. “It was a little different audition than many of the others.”
Mendoza, too, said the audition was quite a nervous experience since she didn’t have the same history of performance as Aguilar.
“I was a bit self-conscious and a little shy, but I think this gave me a chance to come out more and show some of my personality,” Mendoza said. “I’m a bit more self-confident now.”
The final scene of the show was quite an emotional experience for the two actresses as Beatriz was denied her Green card Visa to remain in the United States, and thus was deported back to Mexico. An image of a border wall was used on stage, and it had Beatriz on one side and Olivia on the other, with each putting a hand up on the wall in an effort to make a connection.
“It’s a heartbreaking moment,” Aguilar said. “We all hold someone close and you never want to have that separation, so it was a very emotional scene to be part of.”
If there was any one thought that Aguilar hoped to convey, it was simply this:
“I wanted to develop Beatriz’ character so I could share the story,” Aguilar said. “I wanted to be her voice and that was something special. I hope the audience took away that through tough times, your family is always there and despite all the obstacles, you’re not alone in this world.”
Hilt said that she hoped the show would have the opportunity to be presented at the Kansas State Thespian Festival, indicating that there were state judges in the Sunday afternoon audience to adjudicate the performance and then will decide whether or not they will have that state competition opportunity.