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Donovan and Christa in “In the Heights”

Donovan and Christa in “In the Heights”

By Karina Rodriguez


Northsiders Donovan Holt, Adv. 907, and Christa Ciesil, Adv. 905, participated in a musical production featured in the Illinois High School Theater Festival, an event where students and teachers of theater come together to share and learn more about the artform. This year’s All-State production was “In the Heights.” The musical focuses on a variety of characters living in the largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, a community on the northern tip of Manhattan during an extreme heatwave in 2008. Usnavi, a bodega owner, looks after his aging Cuban neighbor and dreams of winning the lottery so that he can escape the shores of the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Usnavi’s childhood friend, Nina, has returned from college with surprising news for her parents. Ultimately, Usnavi and the residents of the neighborhood determine what it means to be “home”.

Holt was a member of the ensemble and played the hip bartender who loved the neighborhood but wanted to get away for awhile and see new sights. Ciesil portrayed the female lead, Nina Rosario. Nina is a recent dropout of Stanford University who found the elite college lifestyle too difficult and went back home with her friends and family.

Holt and Ciesil auditioned for the company in June along with hundreds of other high school students across the state. Actors had to prepare a song, monologue, and attend the dance call. From there, they got the callback list. “I learned about this opportunity from various peers and mentors who had previously been a part of prior All-State productions,” said Ciesil, commenting on how she found out about the production. “In my case, I auditioned at Deerfield High School and did a callback at Maine East High school before finding out I had been cast.” In addition to “In the Heights,” Ciesil has done other musicals for both Northside and Edge of the Wood Theater Company and has been acting since she was six. What she found challenging in this production was “forming the proper relationships with the other characters in the show.” Ciesil was faced with the “task of creating a believable family relationship with the two other students who portrayed my mother and father.” She added they they “had to act as if we’d known each other for over twenty years in the span of six months.” Thankfully, there were countless cast bonding activities the crew would do in order to get to know each other better. Everyone was passionate about what they did, “which made the process a lot easier,” according to Ciesil.

Similarly, Holt has participated in other productions and faced challenges of his own. The dance call stood out as particularly challenging, he said, “because dance isn’t second nature to me so it was a little bit tricky having to learn something in such little time and then having to show it off, but I did my best.” Holt also mentioned that getting the cast to connect is important for musicals. Since all the actors auditioned and went through a round of call backs, they all wanted to be there, which was “one thing that helped us connect right away” according to Holt. There were also different games and character development activities that made it very easy to “connect with everyone and we ultimately became a family,” said Holt.

The two had little time for relief after being cast as there was still a lot of hard work necessary to produce the show. The cast list was released in July and the company gathered in August holding one rehearsal weekend per month. This made it “challenging to always remember everything,” said Holt. The actors utilized every minute they had together and Holt explained how “we did not always go over a scene twice and we all usually forgot it.” Some rehearsals, they would dance all morning or all afternoon to make sure it was precise and clean, which were the “mentally and physically hard days, but they teach you how to build endurance and stamina,” said Holt.  

The challenges the company faced and effort put into this production paid off. Holt’s favorite part of the experience was “being able to work with passionate theater kids from all over Illinois.” He also explained that he rarely does collaborative work like this outside of school, so this opportunity was “amazing and I made so many friendships that I’ll cherish forever.” Ciesil described it as “an extremely rewarding experience to create a community with other high schoolers who are all dedicated and talented in their art.” She also mentioned that she is grateful and honored to have had the chance to “be the representation for other CPS students in the future.”

If anyone is thinking about trying out for the cast, crew, or pit for the 2020 all state production of Aida, check out this website in March.
Illinois Theatre Fest

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