Here in Minnesota, there are a number of plays scheduled to hit the stage this year that are based on other source material. Lyric Arts is currently running The Girl on the Train, based on both the hit book and movie. The Orpheum will soon host the touring production of To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic. The Guthrie even has a production of Murder on the Orient Express coming up in May. (I’ve never actually read that seminal whodunnit, so don’t ruin it now.) The most innovative play of this variety, however, may be one that’s happening not at a professional theater, but a high school one.
On Thursday, January 26th, I went to Minnetonka High School to see the world premiere of Honk & Holler, a brand new one act play based on a podcast episode from Radiolab, the long-running, immensely popular radio program from WNYC that airs on NPR. The episode in question is called “Sex Appeal,” and it was created by More Perfect, a spinoff of Radiolab that focuses on the Supreme Court. The story here follows a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before she was a justice herself, who pushed the court to take gender discrimination against women seriously in the case of Craig v. Boren with the help of some unlikely characters: frat boy Curtis Craig and a woman who sold college kids beer, Carolyn Whitener.
There are many interesting facets of the show itself, its genesis, and its potential future, but most compelling here is the sheer ambition of the production. MHS developed Honk & Holler for the Minnesota State High School League One Act Play Festival, an annual tournament that schools around the state participate in. Normally, students perform dedicated one act shows or pared down full-length productions (a quick glance at last year’s results show Eagan did Sense & Sensibility and Robbinsdale Armstrong did The Fifteen Minute Hamlet), though some do original material. MHS didn’t just do something original, they shot for the moon. When I reached out to Radiolab, they said that only one other story of theirs has been adapted for the stage, and that was by a professional theater in Seattle.
Before the premiere of Honk & Holler, Trent Boyum, the artistic director of Minnetonka Theatre who created this show along with Associate Director Lauren Bartelt, spoke onstage about how the show came to be. It was 2018. He was driving to his parents’ house on the weekend and listening to NPR, which was playing the “Sex Appeal” program. When he arrived at his destination, he didn’t get out of his car. He was riveted. His mother came outside to see what the hell he was doing sitting in the driveway, but Boyum shooed her away and stayed in the driver’s seat until the end of the story. When he saw Bartelt on Monday, he told her that someone should make this into a play.
Fast forward to the directors choosing a show to present at this year’s One Act Play Festival. They decided to take the gamble themselves, get permission from Radiolab, adapt the funny but politically heavy story for the stage, and present it with their high school actors. So far, it’s paid off. Not only are the students incredibly passionate about the material, as was evident in a talkback after the premiere, but the cast and crew took first place in the first round of competition on January 28th. They’re set to perform next in the sectional competition this Saturday, February 4th at 11:15 a.m. on their home stage at Minnetonka High School. It’s free and open to the public. If you can make it, I suggest you do. [*Update below.]
It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a life for Honk & Holler after this competition wraps up. (The title, by the way, is the name of the convenience store that Whitener owned with her husband.) The original podcast episode is almost an hour long, so this stage adaptation crammed in a lot in 35 minutes (the limit for shows in the competition), and as such any future productions could use a little breathing room. But even if this is the last time we see it, there’s endless potential found in the creative team here. The student actors, especially Reagan Aleman (who plays Ginsburg) and Hailey Guptail (who plays Whitener), brought such verve to this premiere production; and Boyum and Bartelt cannot be commended enough for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for high school theater in Minnesota.
*Update 2/15/2023: After originally posting this story, I’m happy to share that Minnetonka not only took first place in the sectional competition, but they received a starred performance as well as Wells Fargo’s Spotlight on the Arts award at the MSHSL One Act Play Festival on Thursday, February 9th. First, second, and third places are not given out in this final showcase, so this is the highest honor possible for the competition. Congratulations to the entire cast, crew, and creative team! I hope we see a future life for Honk & Holler…