Arts Alive: Cappies Review of Stellar Mind by Fairfax High School

By Communications and Community Relations Staff
January 14, 2021

Fairfax County Public Schools students are talented actors, musicians, and visual artists. Many FCPS high schools participate in the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Critics and Awards Program for High School Theatre, otherwise known as the Cappies.

The Cappies is a program through which high school theater and journalism students are trained as critics, attend shows at other schools, write reviews, and publish those reviews in local newspapers. There are fifteen Cappies chapters across the United States and Canada. 

The Cappies continues this year with virtual performances. Students learning through the theatre arts is as important as ever. Most performances this year are written by students and are available to watch on the Cappies website. Some performances do require a fee to view online.   

Editor's Note: This review of Fairfax High School's virtual production of Stellar Mind is written by Zander Kuebler of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. You can watch Stellar Mind online below. 

It's easy to forget that being a high schooler is hard. There are countless inner struggles that are often overlooked and many more that are recognized but still misunderstood, particularly surrounding mental illness. Fairfax High School's Stellar Mind reminds us of the hardships of teenage anxiety and takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ride into the world of two friends receiving their college acceptances.

A down-to-earth one-act, Stellar Mind was written by Fairfax High School students Grace Lane and Madeleine Tyler earlier this year and was filmed and edited for a virtual setting. Lane and Tyler, who also directed the production, used their own experiences with anxiety to shape the world, creating an accurate portrayal of mental illness where mainstream media often misses the mark. The story follows best friends Adam and Stella as Adam receives his responses from colleges. Stella is overwhelmed by their potential futures and worries that her lifelong friendship with Adam is coming to a close.

Stella (Emma Dunlop) and Adam (Ethan Clayman) were incredibly believable as old friends and provided realistic portrayals of high school life. Dunlop's ability to be relatable and understandable despite the intense nature of her character was impressive, particularly during her character's most overwhelming bout of anxiety. She also excelled during her non-speaking screen time where she exhibited nuanced expression and emotion appropriately detailed by the film nature of the production. 

Complementing Dunlop's expressive performance nicely, Ethan Clayman brought a casual charm to his character that made Adam likable despite his naivety. When Adam was talking about his college decision, Clayman depicted it with a smiling passion that was both authentic and engaging. Combine this with his soft-spoken reminders to Stella to, "remember to breathe" and it created the perfect balance of caring about Stella without really understanding what she felt. Together, their conversations appeared casual but were powerful, a testament to the writing and acting alike. 

Writers Lane and Tyler took further advantage of the virtual setting to illustrate Stella's anxiety using voice-overs performed by Isabella Jackson. Despite being limited to audio, Jackson personified Stella's anxiety effectively, coming off as nagging when needed but also frighteningly aggressive as well. The film was further supplemented by Samatha Hayes's performance as the anxiety-inducing Marley. Hayes embodied the bubbly nature of her character well, eliciting frustration from Stella that added to the validity of her anxiety.

The technical elements of the production were appropriately clean and straightforward. Combining scenes from different rooms, adding voice-overs, and editing scenes together are all challenging, but the production ran smoothly and the editing did not distract from the show. In fact, the inclusion of phone icons when Adam and Stella were on a video call and the camera angle when Stella was in her car were unique uses of the virtual setting that added more to the production. However, the most significant technical addition was the inclusion of original music composed and performed by Rowan Clark. She mixed sweet, slow melodies with lyrics about longing and memories that melded beautifully with the rest of the production and created an ambiance of remembrance and smiles.

Despite the challenges of writing and performing a theatrical piece during a pandemic, Fairfax High School succeeded with Stellar Mind, providing accurate insights on the struggles of anxiety amongst an engaging story and overall enjoyable production.