What memories come to mind when you think of high school? Is it cramming for exams under pressure to raise your GPA? Catching the pass in a big game, a stadium of fans cheering you on? Hiding in the bathroom from someone ready to pound your face in? You probably have many memories of high school, good and bad alike. That’s because high school isn’t just one thing – it’s a living, breathing ecosystem of people and experiences that can vary widely depending on who you are. It’s this diversity of stories that Hall Pass, the new immersive musical from Blindspot Collective, innovatively recreates in an experience that likely will have you dancing in your seat and wiping away tears in equal measure.
Created and directed by Blindspot Collective’s Blake McCarty and produced by McCarty and Catherine Hanna Schrock, Hall Pass was presented by San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse as part of their 2019 Without Walls Festival. A site-specific, immersive hybrid, Hall Pass takes place in an actual high school – the impressive High Tech High in San Diego’s Liberty Station – and features the contributions of 23 composers and playwrights and over 60 different performers. The combined result is a vibrant, energetic show that can be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone who has ever been a teenager.
Set at the fictional Harris-Tingley High, Hall Pass is essentially a collection of twenty short plays performed throughout the school. Structured like the first day of a new school year, over one hundred attendees take on the role of a new student and are given a school schedule that doubles as a program and guide through the production. The entire experience is divided into four periods, plus an opening orientation and closing assembly that all audience members attend. Within each of the four periods, however, guests are free to put together their own unique schedule, choosing which “classes” they’d like to visit. Each class represents a different 15- to 20-minute performance, which can vary widely – some are dramas, while others are musicals and dance pieces. What they all have in common, however, is their subject matter. All of them attempt to address just what it means to be a teen in high school today.
It’ll come as little surprise that Hall Pass makes the case that it’s not easy, and that this is true no matter what crowd – if any – you run with. But life never has been easy for teens, and one of Hall Pass’s accomplishments is how effectively it cuts through the Gen Z details to get to the universal struggles within. Cyber-bullying may seem different to those who graduated from high school pre-social media, but it’s still bullying. Internet addiction is still addiction and can be just as destructive as alcohol and drugs (which are still problems as well). While school shootings are horrifying and tragic and climate change is a nightmare, it’s the continual fear of them that’s the bigger problem for most teens, something many of their grandparents, who practiced regular nuclear drills when they were in school, can certainly relate to.
The various short plays within Hall Pass don’t hit you over the head with any of this, but rather, allow the skill of their performers and effectiveness of the show’s setting to lure you in, creating understanding and enough familiarity that you eventually do feel like you’re one of the students, listening in as some of your fellow classmates discuss the latest drama in their lives. As with all collections, some of the plays are better executed than others, and it’s impossible for any single audience member to see even a third of them in one visit. However, of the six that I saw, which included the opening orientation and closing assembly, none were what I’d call misses, and the best were phenomenal.
Those best would definitely include Uncomfortable, a taut piece written by Elle Anhorn and featuring a trio of strong performances by Emily Neifert, Ell Rudgers, and Hannah Trujillo. Uncomfortable manages to be heartbreaking, maddening, and cathartic within its 20 minutes as we watch a student reveal to an estranged friend that they’re genderqueer. It’s moving and at times difficult to watch, and couldn’t be more different from Detentionicide, the second standout piece in my schedule, in which Sydney Joyner, Imahni King, Dakota Ringer, and Claudette Santiago sing rousingly acapella about the unique situations that landed them each in detention. Written by Trevor Bachman, Detentionicide benefits extensively from Wilfred Paloma’s innovative choreography and its performers’ self-made rhythms using objects around the room (think Stomp).
Hall Pass has much going for it, but it’s impossible to overstate how much lift it’s given by its setting and large cast. Since the show’s performed in an actual high school, every room and corridor feels lived-in and real. If that’s not enough to allow you to give in to the fantasy of being back in school, Hall Pass’s massive cast should finish the job. As you wander the campus from class to class, the corridors are full of students who interact with each other and with you. Interestingly, more than a third of the performers are actual students at nearby Canyon Crest Academy’s theater program. These younger performers are largely there for texture, and in many cases, attend the classes with you. The result is a living, breathing environment at a large scale rarely seen in immersive productions.
Because the school feels like such a rich, layered environment, I found myself wanting to follow particular students, wondering what their stories are. But while there are moments of sandbox exploration in between classes and you have full agency to choose the shows you see, the character narratives aren’t carried throughout the experience, and following specific characters from class to class isn’t an option. This isn’t a criticism – for Hall Pass to be built around following performers would make it a different show. But it says something about how appealing and interesting so many of the characters were that I wanted the chance to learn more about them.
Hall Pass could also benefit from a little more information about each of the classes. While being able to choose my own experience was fun, it was something of a dice roll since we’re only given the name, writer, and cast of each play. A short blurb teasing what it is about would have been helpful, along with information about what kind of performance it is. Some people love musicals, others loathe them. Hall Pass can please both types, but it would help if audiences could tell which performances included song and dance, and which were straight dramas.
The experience ends with a final closing assembly featuring the full cast. It’s little more than a single song, but surrounded by over sixty voices coming at you from all angles, it’s a nearly transcendent experience, particularly if your schedule wound up being a heavier one. The hopeful, upbeat lyrics celebrate diversity and the common struggles and dreams that go along with being a teenager and a student.
That Hall Pass ends with a group scene isn’t a coincidence. While there may be no easy answers to the challenges that students face, there’s strength in knowing that you’re not alone in facing them. That what you’re going through, others have gone through before and will continue to go through after you. Hall Pass reminds us all that being young isn’t always easy, but we also know that most of us get through it just fine. Sometimes it’s by fumbling our way through and hoping for the best, but more often, it’s with the help of people who took the time to understand us. With its charm, sincerity, and well-performed stories of teenage ups and downs, Hall Pass does its part to ensure that understanding won’t be in short supply for the teens of today.
Hall Pass has currently finished its run. For more information on Blindspot Collective and their upcoming events, see their website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Check out our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.
All photography by Peter Schrock.