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…can be a gateway into dialogue on the new, challenging questions young students confront on personal, community, and global levels.
At Rowland Hall, theatre is a magical and powerful art form. Experiences in class and on stage charge students’ imaginations and challenge their belief systems. Theatre Teacher and Technical Designer Matt Sincell guides middle and upper schoolers in finding their own artistic voices, and provides a platform for complex social-emotional learning.
Under Mr. Sincell’s direction, students present two major shows per year: a fall production for upper schoolers only, and a spring production for both middle and upper schoolers. Classes, meanwhile, focus on generating excitement around all the disciplines of theatre: acting, singing, dancing, stage management, lighting, sound, set, costumes, and directing.
Mr. Sincell also hosts guest artists, collaborates with other educational institutions such as the University of Utah, and keeps middle and upper schoolers connected to the Salt Lake City community theatre scene—including helping interested students find internships with professional theaters.
Upper and middle schoolers dazzled in this fun riff on the story of Peter Pan, rich in antic humor and theatrical innovation. As a Broadway play, Peter won a staggering nine Tony Awards in 2012. Watch a preview of Rowland Hall's production on Facebook.
Middle and upper school actors, dancers, musicians, and visual artists derived an absurd, whimsical, haunting, and comedic version of Alice in Wonderland. The April 2019 production featured large-scale murals, traveling props, a costume menagerie, every style of dance, and integrated orchestral, vocal, and jazz music.
Alum Jamie Pierce ’98 thrives in all sorts of spotlights: he’s a classically trained dancer with theatre credits galore, and as a comedian, he was named a Laugh Factory top-10 national emerging comic and has opened for industry legends such as Wanda Sykes and Janeane Garofalo.
Now, Jamie—who honed his performing arts skills on our Larimer Center stage—will grace Rowland Hall’s virtual stage to host our April 17 stand-up comedy auction benefiting school financial aid, faculty professional development, and our ongoing COVID-19 response.
What a thrill to now be master of ceremonies for such a glamorous event! And this year it’s taking place in the most glittering venue of them all—my living room.—Jamie Pierce ’98
“When I was in high school, I remember being jealous of the adults who got to dress up fancy and attend the auction,” Jamie said. “What a thrill to now be master of ceremonies for such a glamorous event! And this year it’s taking place in the most glittering venue of them all—my living room.”
We can’t wait for Jamie—aided by a few other hilarious community members—to crack us up for a good cause. Visit our auction webpage to read more and get ready to STAND UP Rowland Hall on April 17.
Jamie Pierce's Biography
After graduating from Rowland Hall, Jamie began his career as a classically trained dancer (BFA, ballet, University of Utah) performing with the Utah Ballet Company before moving to New York where he appeared in The Music Man and Broadway Dances. Other professional theatre credits include Carousel, Dreamgirls, Urinetown, and The Wild Party, as well as Evita, Phantom,and Peter Pan with Utah’s Pioneer Theatre Company. In 2019, he received an Ovation Award nomination for his performance in the Los Angeles production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and most recently created the role of “Frank” in the world-premier play, Embridge. As a comedian, he was selected as a Laugh Factory top-10 national emerging comic and was featured in the New York Comedy Festival at Caroline’s on Broadway. He has performed as the opening act for notable comedy legends including Wanda Sykes and Janeane Garofalo. On screen, Jamie can be seen as the title role in the film festival favorite Bill (2021) as well as the lead in the music video for “Just Party” by hip-hop artist Supanova Galaxy. He has also appeared in numerous TV commercials. Jamie is host of the top-rated podcast Hello, Gorgeous! (#43 on iTunes). He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Like all educators across the country, Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell had to rethink his lesson plans after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed in-person learning in March.
With traditional classes and a spring production off the table, Matt found himself looking for ways to provide theatre experiences for students during quarantine. He decided to introduce them to radio plays, a completely acoustic type of theatre, which could be produced from their homes.
While the term radio play might bring to mind radio series from the 1930s and 1940s, this type of production still attracts audiences today—podcasts, for instance, are “sort of the modern-day version of a radio play,” Matt said. Stories told as radio plays also have lasting power: "The War of the Worlds," a Mercury Theatre on the Air radio episode based on the 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, dramatized a Martian invasion and is remembered because of the fear it stirred when it aired in 1938. “It caused a nationwide panic when it was first performed. People actually thought we were being invaded by aliens,” said Matt.
In the early months of distance learning, Rowland Hall students began exploring this theatre form, ultimately creating an adaptation of the popular children’s book The Gruffalo (which was edited by seventh- and eighth-grade Arts & Ensembles theatre teacher Meighan Smith). Their work was shared with families and friends—and, thanks to Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company, the wider community when it was featured on The City Library’s BiblioBoard. And as Matt planned for the 2020–2021 year—which he knew would still include distance learning in some form—he decided to continue the study of radio plays. “With students at home, in class, and, for some, distance learning only, it seemed the most likely class project to be able to complete,” he explained.
This fall, Matt assigned his sixth-grade Arts & Ensembles class the task of creating an original radio play. The result, The Awakening, is a 16-minute production written and performed by students Sebby Bamberger, Lila Bates, Josie Fonarow, Elayna Hoglund, Paulina Ize-Cedillo, Emery Lieberman, Elle Prasthofer, Morgan Schmutz, Sophie Smith, Izzy Utgaard, and Kate Weissman. The play, which took about two months to complete, was written in both the horror and comedy genres, explained Elayna.
“The inspiration for it was the story of ‘The Ghost with the Bloody Finger,’” she said, referencing a well-known campfire ghost story designed to make listeners laugh. Elayna said the sixth graders wanted to incorporate humor into their radio play because they knew their audience would be mostly made up of listeners who were middle-school-aged and younger. “We knew that it’d be more fun to have some funny in it.”
All 11 students were invested in the project, getting involved in the brainstorming, writing, and script editing required of a radio play. Although they weren’t able to do the close-contact acting techniques of a stage production, they did get to experience voice acting, with distance learners applying best practices to capture the cleanest sound possible by recording with blankets over their heads or by sitting inside a closet, and in-person learners utilizing a handmade, COVID-approved sound booth made of two stacked desks wrapped with a thick, padded moving blanket. (Blankets were changed and desks and equipment were sanitized between each recording session.)
“There was never a time that a student was directly interacting with another student, but we were able to create the illusion that they were indeed responding to each other,” said Matt, who edited The Awakening.
The students also learned the importance of sound effects in radio plays, which are key to bringing this art form to life. “The tricky thing about a radio play is that there, of course, is no visual to accompany it,” Matt explained, “so it's even more necessary to rely on our sense of sound to tell the story.” He had students experiment with Foley, a sound-making technique pioneered in the 1920s and still used today—Elayna captured the sound of a refrigerator door closing, a microwave beeping, and a candy wrapper crackling, while classmate Sophie recorded a door slamming, feet running on concrete, and her interpretation of a leprechaun laughing. Sophie said it felt good knowing that her sound effects helped make a difference in the finished recording. “It was pretty nice because you knew it was your work,” she said.
Art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.—Matt Sincell, theatre teacher
And that finished recording is impressive indeed. It’s a strong reminder of student creativity and ingenuity, even within a pandemic. “What they have been able to accomplish in the face of such adversity is really quite unique and wonderful,” said Matt.
The theatre teacher is hopeful that the radio play will also bring smiles to the larger community: on December 14, Matt announced that Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre’s artistic director and a dedicated supporter of theatre education in Utah, had offered to again promote the Rowland Hall students’ work by linking The Awakening to The City Library’s BiblioBoard and to Plan-B’s mobile app.
“It's super exciting to once again have Plan-B Theatre support our students' work,” said Matt. “It’s nice to think that they are able to provide a 16-minute gift of joy to other students outside of the Rowland Hall community. It's proof that art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.”
Banner photo: Rowland Hall middle schoolers Lila Bates and Kate Weissman preparing to record lines of The Awakening.
Death of the American Teenager, an original musical about gun violence in schools, opens with some sobering statistics—like that there have been 408 school shootings in the last 10 years, or that in 2017 more school-aged children died from gunshots than did active duty police and military personnel.
For today’s students, gun-violence statistics have become too familiar. In addition to a barrage of news stories about shootings, students are reminded of gun violence during regular lockdown drills (Death of the American Teenager cites an average of 16 per school each year) and are aware of the role guns play in climbing suicide rates—in Utah, for instance, the most recent age-adjusted suicide rate is 22.7 per 100,000 people (compared to a national rate of 14.0 per 100,000). Suicide was also the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10–17 in 2018.
It’s no surprise that the stress is taking a toll on young Americans.
Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember.—Noah Schiffman, Class of 2022
“Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember,” said Rowland Hall sophomore and Death of the American Teenager cast member Noah Schiffman. Junior James Welt, another cast member, added, “It's become a huge part of a lot of my day-to-day experiences. Every time I hear running in the hallways or loud noises, I can't help but fear the worst.” Along with Noah and James, Rowland Hall senior Connor Macintosh and alumna Ella Baker-Smith ’19 were in the musical's original cast. Sophomore Amanda Green joined the cast for the 2019–2020 school year.
In recent years, concerned students have channeled their fears through action—the most famous example is probably the organization of March for Our Lives protests and chapters around the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. For the Utah high school actors who make up the Youth Conservatory—a group housed under University of Utah Youth Theatre—that action was researching, writing, and choreographing Death of the American Teenager.
Originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual open access arts festival, Death of the American Teenager was written as a reflection of America. Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood explained that the Youth Conservatory, which is made up of 20 actors from 10 Utah high schools, chose to write a musical because it’s an American art form—and that they focused the musical on gun violence because of its prevalence in America today.
“It's a topic we've all been exposed to at a super young age, and it's something that is on a lot of our minds at every second,” said James.
Research and writing began in January 2019, only seven months before the show’s summer debut in Scotland. “The writing process was an incredible experience,” said Connor. The actors spent time researching topics like the history of school shootings and lockdowns, as well as suicide statistics in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be performing the musical. The subjects were heavy, and the experience was emotional. But the process was also cathartic, giving the actors the chance to examine, confront, and discuss their fears—and helping them realize they weren’t alone in those fears.
“The most important thing that came out of it was the sense that we were all there for each other and the sense that we’re all fighting this fight together,” Connor said. “We all share the same collective fear, and as scary as that fear is, it’s comforting to know that I have people around me that know exactly what we’re going through.”
The musical was cathartic for Fringe audiences too: attendees were so moved by the production that they sought out cast members to thank them and to share their own stories. Other American high school students inquired about performing it in their communities. By creatively addressing their fears through theatre—what Noah called an empathetic art form—the Youth Conservatory found themselves inspiring necessary conversation and action.
“The goal is to tell a story, yes, but also to make those watching believe it to be reality,” Noah said. “Gun violence is some people's reality, and that is not acceptable—but that won't change until everyone understands the extent of the fear those actually affected face.”
Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell, who teaches the school’s Youth Conservatory members, agreed.
“Theatre can crack open conversation in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “There’s something about watching live actors—it somehow becomes easier to put yourself in their place, to empathize, and it affects a person on a very visceral, kinesthetic level.”
Knowing this, Matt wanted to do something in the Youth Conservatory’s home state that would inspire more of the conversations that they started overseas—especially because he knew there was something special about this musical that the local community should experience. “It’s not a piece that’s written by adults trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student—this is written by students who have been born into this culture,” he said. “I really believed the show needed to have a life beyond the Fringe because of its message.”
Matt also felt that offering Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts to a community group—particularly one that creatively connected our students with their peers across the Wasatch Front—would be an important step in building other connections across Salt Lake’s vibrant theatre community. In many ways, bringing Death of the American Teenager to the school was a natural fit, as Rowland Hall values deep thinking and seeks to create spaces in which students can examine hard questions and safely express themselves.
“At Rowland Hall, we believe by challenging students to think deeply, they will grapple with complex issues and recognize different points of view,” explained Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake, who was part of the team that welcomed Penny and her students to campus.
On January 29, Death of the American Teenager came to Rowland Hall for two performances in the Larimer Center. Like Fringe audiences, Salt Lake attendees were deeply touched by the musical. “I was blown away by the performance, which was masterfully written with great insight and sensitivity,” said Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson.
The performers were grateful for the chance to revisit the piece and to present it not only to an audience of peers, but to the adults who care about them. Often, they explained, it can be difficult to make adults understand their very real fear around the topic of gun violence and how deeply it affects them.
“I was so glad that my school asked us to share this piece with the public and gave us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves in the most politically unbiased way—just speaking from our emotions and how we feel,” said Amanda. That message was undoubtedly received, with most audience members staying after the performances to participate in talk-backs with the actors, further emphasizing the need for conversation around this difficult subject—something that Matt greatly encourages parents and caregivers to remember when supporting their teenagers through gun-violence anxiety.
Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue.—James Welt, Class of 2021
“Talk at dinner with them, ask them questions, continue the conversation,” he encouraged. “We need to have these direct conversations.”
Above all, the actors want Death of the American Teenager to help spread among their peers the feeling of empowerment the cast experienced when confronting their fears together—and for teenagers to understand that they can help spur change by exercising their voting power.
“Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue,” said James. “I want teenagers who watch the show to know that they have the power to be heard.”
“We can conquer gun violence if we all work together,” added Noah.
Update: Since performing at Rowland Hall, the Youth Conservatory presented a 12-minute version of Death of the American Teenager at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in California in February 2020. It won first place in its division.
Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood has been overwhelmed with positive comments about the show and questions about packaging it for performance at other high schools and venues around the country. She is talking with local theatre organizations about how to make this happen. We will update the Rowland Hall community on any news we receive about the future of Death of the American Teenager.
Top photo: The Death of the American Teenager cast performing on stage. Photos courtesy Connor Macintosh
Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.
Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.
Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.
You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08
“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.”
Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”
Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”
Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.”
Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”