Theater students win big at CETA festival

Sophia Krugler and Emily Yun

The Palo Alto High School Theatre program enters the spring semester with high hopes after taking home an Outstanding Design Team award, among other awards, for “Murder by Poe” at the California Educational Theatre Association Festival earlier this month.

Three students involved with the design for the play — juniors Maya Mazor-Hoofien, Phoebe Berghout, and Ryan Hwangbo — were chosen by Paly Theatre teacher Sarah Thermond to enter the One-Act Techworks category. According to Thermond, each student in her Advanced Stage Tech class submitted a short presentation for their fall semester final project. Thermond said she then selected three entries from the same play, “Murder by Poe,” which she believed would make for a more cohesive team submission, as it was the only play submitted from three different designers.

“I ended up choosing who to submit based on which play had three designers choose to submit it [the play],” Thermond said. “I figured out which designers seemed to be united in wanting to present this show, and we went for that.”

Junior and Costume Designer Phoebe Berghout submitted her work from “Murder by Poe,” a virtual play performed by the Palo Alto High School Theatre program in the fall, to the California Educational Theatre Association Festival. Senior Jonathan Sneh, who played the role of Dupin, wore one of Berghout’s many designs that she had to adjust to fit the virtual environment. “One thing I learned about virtual shows is that since most actors don’t stand up, you get about half the costume space to tell a story,” Berghout said. Photo: Phoebe Berghout

In addition to its Outstanding Design Team award for the One-Act Techworks category, given to the team for the cohesiveness of the students’ designs, the team also received a third-place award for the One-Act Techworks category. Mazor-Hoofien received an Outstanding Designer award for her work with Hair and Makeup for “Murder by Poe,” and Hwangbo received an Adjudicator Tech Award for “Murder by Poe.” Additionally, junior Anneke Salvadori received an Adjudicator Acting Award for her performance in scenes from “Waiting for the Bus” and “Marriage Counseling.”

According to Thermond, Paly Theatre has not participated in the CETA festival in past years because it was only open to schools in southern California, where the organization is based. However, with the festival being hosted online this year and many theater programs putting on virtual performances, the competition was opened up to high schools in all of California, Thermond said.

“Some designers were competing in this festival with shows that they did in person in previous years,” Thermond said. “So I do think it’s a real testament to all of our designers that they managed to do something over Zoom in the virtual setting that still was high caliber and quality enough to be a winner of state competition.”

Maya Mazor-Hoofien  — Hair and Makeup Design

Mazor-Hoofien, who attended Paly her freshman and sophomore years, now attends Foothill Middle College, but is still involved with Paly Theatre. According to Mazor-Hoofien, Paly’s rendition of “Murder by Poe” is set during the early Victorian era in New England and France, which determined how she approached her design.

I started with looking up the actual historical figures mentioned in the show; Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Poe, Maria Clemm, and a queen, presumably French,” Mazor-Hoofien said. “From there, I looked at more images at the time and read some articles and blogs about what women were doing with their hair and their makeup, and how it differed by class and location.”

In addition to contributing as the hair and makeup designer for “Murder by Poe,” Mazor-Hoofien assistant directed and acted in the play.  Mazor-Hoofien said her biggest challenge of putting on a virtual performance as a hair and makeup designer was creating looks that the actors could duplicate from home, with constraints due to their skills and the materials they had access to.

“It was a logistical nightmare, and I’m still shocked we pulled it off,” Mazor-Hoofien said. “I had probably five spreadsheets and countless emails and texts to consult, and I actually filmed tutorials of myself explaining the designs for each actor to watch.”

Mazor-Hoofien said she was honored to be recognized for her work, especially since hair and makeup is an area of design that is often overlooked in theater.

“Most schools aren’t as lucky as I am to have such an extensive hair and makeup department, and because of that, hair and makeup as an area of design can be a little undervalued,” Mazor-Hoofien said. “Because hair and makeup is so artistic, it can be pushed aside at these sorts of competitions and sometimes doesn’t even have a category.”

Phoebe Berghout — Costume Design

Berghout said that despite her limited experience with the early Victorian era, designing the costumes for “Murder by Poe” was a fun challenge.

“I did a lot of research on the late Romantic era and early Victorian era, looking specifically at silhouettes and styles, while also paying attention to how fashion differed between social classes,” Berghout said. “My approach to researching was to pull images that I thought fit character vibes into a mood board. This included various things that I was inspired by like pictures from the period, but also furniture, jewelry, and flowers.”

Berghout said one of the main challenges she faced this year was that she often had to tell a story with half of the typical costume space, since most actors do not stand up during virtual shows.

“As a costume designer, I rely on all sorts of things to communicate a character’s emotions — socioeconomic status, occupation, relationships, etcetera,” Berghout said. “However, over Zoom I am more limited when it comes to costumes. I really focused on designing costumes that would be interesting from waist up.”

For her submission to the California Educational Theatre Association Festival, Hair and Makeup Designer Maya Mazor-Hoofien discussed her designs for the play, “Murder by Poe,” which the Palo Alto High School Theatre program put on virtually during the fall semester. Freshman Athya Paramesh, who played Pluto, the Cat, is featured on the left, and freshman Abi Friedland, who played M. Charlot, the orangutan, is shown in the middle and on the right. “Usually for a cat makeup, I — in my personal taste — would go heavier than that and do stuff on the eyes,” Mazor-Hoofien said during her presentation. “But she [Paramesh] had, I want to say like 30 seconds [or] even less, so this design is all about how little makeup can we have on her that still reads ‘cat.’” Photo: Maya Mazor-Hoofien
Berghout, who has received awards for her costume designs in previous years, said that although it takes her much effort and time  — often over 70 hours per show — to design costumes for a show, the recognition she has received for her work has made her effort worthwhile. 

“It’s super exciting to have that work recognized,” Berghout said. “I plan on participating in more competitions in the future and continuing with costume design.”

Ryan Hwangbo — Sound Design

In his submission, Hwangbo explained that with each actor performing from their own home due to the virtual setting of the play, he focused only on designing sound effects and music for the show and did not have to create a system for microphones, which would have been necessary for a traditional show. For one of his sound effects, Hwangbo pieced together the voices of actors whispering different lines at varying volumes, creating an eerie mood. 

Hwangbo said that although the virtual setting of the play did not pose many challenges for him in terms of creating his design, he did run into some issues while trying to use the sound software QLab with Zoom. 

“I had to test multiple different intermediary softwares due to compatibility issues,” Hwangbo said. “Eventually, I ditched the entire concept and simply shared my computer sound and hoped for the best.”

Hwangbo said the CETA festival was Hwangbo’s first time submitting theater-related work, and that he did not expect to receive an award. As a result of his unexpected success, Hwangbo said he hopes to participate in more theater festivals and competitions in the future.

“Now that I’ve taken my first step, I’d like to see how far I can go,” Hwangbo said.

Anneke Salvadori — Acting

Salvadori, who won an Adjudicator Acting Award, submitted two pieces — a two-person scene from “Waiting for the Bus,” which she filmed specifically for her submission, and a one-act titled “Marriage Counseling,” which she performed during Paly’s Virtually There play in the fall. Salvadori said that although “Marriage Counseling” was written to take place over Zoom, she and her scene partner had to adjust their scene from “Waiting for the Bus” to fit a virtual setting.

Me and my friend Ameer Ali have a very fun and dependable acting relationship with one another, so we wanted to prepare a scene that we knew we could do well with,” Salvadori said. “Ameer and I decided that we were just going to adjust the setting to a zoom call for more efficiency in the scene. We also had to make sure we had lighting that worked with lamps and other random things we found around the house to keep ourselves seen.”

Salvadori said this award was her first large-scale award for theatre, although she has received less-significant awards from her middle school’s theater program.

“Honestly, I was really surprised when I won because while I was proud of my work in these, I didn’t believe it was the best performance I’ve ever given,” Salvadori said. “It was quite exciting for me, and I was really grateful to be recognized.”