NHS Theater Students Apply Classroom Learning On Stage While Sharing 1861 History

Not only do Noblesville High School students involved in the spring play learn about acting, building sets, costuming, stage lighting and sound, the students are also learning about history this semester.

“Mrs. Packard” — onstage at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the NHS Auditorium — is a play based on historical events, set in Illinois in 1861, and tells the fascinating story of Elizabeth Packard (1816-1897) and her struggle to right a system gone wrong after her minister husband had her removed from their home against her will, due to her liberal beliefs, and committed to a state-run insane asylum.

At the time, a husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent.

“Mrs. Packard,” a play written by Emily Mann in 2007, was winner of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.

Susan Nieten, the NHS Theatre teacher and spring play director, said a student who was exposed to this play in a summer theater program, suggested Nieten read the play. “While reading it, I fell in love with the story,” she said. “Elizabeth’s journey towards freedom and advocacy is very inspiring.”

Nieten said “Mrs. Packard” is a good teaching play. Students today have seen adults on two sides of an issue tear each other down and try to censor or bury the thoughts and speech of the opposition. “Adults who behave that way in society ignore and threaten the First Amendment,” she said. “I wanted students to see what can happen when people go too far to try to silence the voices of opposition. To quote Elizabeth (Packard) in Act II: ‘In America, we do not lock up those with whom we disagree. And whosoever seeks to do so is a traitor to our flag and the cause which it represents.’”

The community will find this historical drama “inspiring” when they “learn of what Elizabeth had to endure on her journey to freedom and advocacy,” Nieten said. “Because she is a real person, it’s a great way to learn a little history while spending a night at the theater.”

Elizabeth Packard went on to advocate for women in similar situations as well as advocate for cleaner and safer conditions for asylums and became a national celebrity and published author of many books. Laws to protect people in asylums, and to protect people from asylums, were passed due to her advocacy.

More than 60 NHS students, grades 9-12, are involved in the play, as cast or crew members. Students auditioned for roles and applied to be on crews.

Being that the play is set in 1861, it was important to find or make costumes that suggest the time period. Nieten said the costume crew was selected based on prior experience, interest and/or skills that include sewing. “We have been able to costume the entire show from our stock or from what students can bring in for themselves,” said Nieten, who tries not to purchase costumes. “I do this to keep the cost down for the kids involved,” she said.

Nieten said the stage serves as a theatrical space that becomes many places: Ward 7, Ward 8, Dr. McFarland’s office, a mess hall and the Lunatics Ball, all set in an asylum. There are also courtroom scenes and a scene in the Packard home.

NHS Technical Theatre classes have built the set, and students from those classes have painted the sets and some of the furniture. Students use flats (easy-to-move lightweight timber frames covered with scenic canvas to make backdrops), furniture and lighting to create different locations.

The popularity of NHS theater classes has grown in recent years.

Before the 2015-16 school year, there were Theatre Arts I and II and Theatre Production and Technical Theatre. Now, NHS offers all of those, plus Advanced Theatre Arts I & II and Advanced Acting I & II.

In the acting-based classes, students learn “how to create characters, how to speak and move on the stage and how to put together and build scenes with an audience in mind,” Nieten said. Other topics are also included, like auditions, theater advocacy, stage makeup and preparing for competitive acting competitions.

In the Theatre Production class, students learn set construction in a first-semester course with the class building the set for the NHS fall musical. In Technical Theatre, students build the set for the spring play with the instruction focusing on sound and stage lighting.

Students not only do costumes but they also operate the sound board and light board.

“Mr. (Greg) Richards (NHS’s technical director) will sit with me and the student running lights while he instructs the student on how to set up and use the board for this show,” said Nieten, who is there to explain what she wants from the sound and lights. The student is in the Technical Theatre class and has some experience already with running lights. The same is true with sound, Nieten said, however, the Technical Theatre class has already covered sound this semester so the student is more self-sufficient.

It’s been four years since NHS Theatre Department put on a drama, which was “The Crucible,” in 2019.

Currently, students are not charged a fee to be involved with the spring play.

NHS Theatre doesn’t get a budget from the school for productions but simply operates from ticket sales and from donations, which are accepted during the run of the play and throughout the school year.

-Betsy Reason writes about people, places and things in Hamilton County. Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.

Want TO GO?

What: Noblesville High School Theatre Department presents “Mrs. Packard,” by Emily Mann and directed by NHS theater teacher Susan Nieten.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Where: Noblesville High School Auditorium, 18111 Cumberland Road, Noblesville. Enter Gate 1.

Good to know: Patrons can support cast and crew with Backstage Notes for $2 each, cash only. Concessions, including a bake sale, will be open at intermission, cash only. Thespian officers will accept donations for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, after the show, cash and checks payable to NHS. How much: $10 online at nhstheatrearts.weebly.com, $12 at the door, general admission


Elizabeth Packard — Savannah McClure

Theophilus Packard — Colin McCabe

Dr. McFarland — Aidan Johnston

Mrs. Bonner — Emmy Phillips

Mrs. Chapman — Sean Wood

Miss Rumsey — Lauryn Kinzie

Mrs. Blessing — Rylee Odle

Mrs. Tenney — Ebbe Beer

Mrs. Dole — Sarah Rolinson

Mrs. Stockton — Andie Zelaya

Judge — Luke Long

Mr. Smith — Ehren Knerr

Mr. Haslet — Braedon Lechien

Dr. Knott — Jaxon Luna

Mr. La Brie — Josiah Smith

Mr. Blackman — Maddux Morrison

Clerk — Vincent Lomellin

Stephen R. Moore — Blake Valentine

Dr. Brown — Grey Black

Mr. Abijah — Nolan Campbell

Dr. Duncanson — Roux Carney

Mr. Blessing — Andrew Rivera

Foreman of the Jury — Braden Greenlee

Attendant/Trustee — Devin Ruse

Libby — Kate Boice

TBD Patients — Kemah Larson, Lucy Stambaugh, Kate Boice, Khari Davis, Mia Gordon, Nika Spaulding, Hannah Ropte and Bowen Mann


Director — Susan Nieten

Assistant director — Connor Buhl

Technical director — Greg Richards

Production manager — Trevor Greenlee

Deck manager — Max Midkiff

Stage crew — Gray Black, Ehren Knerr, Katy Luna, Nely Luna, Devin Ruse and Blake Valentine

Sound board operator — J Herold

Lightboard operator — Jonah Laiken Charpie

Rehearsal prompter manager — Braden Greenlee

Rehearsal prompters — Emma Cseke, Ellie Seago and Kenzie Wood

Costume managers — Addie McMillan and Rue Tierney

Costume crew — Morrison Eastman, Mia Feigel, Jillian Gale and Amy Lynn Props manager — Rylee Odle

Props crew — Tyler Cowan and Ella Miller

Makeup crew chief — Maddux Morrison

Makeup crew — Nolan Campbell, Carmen Cremer, Kaito Moormann, Hannah Ropte and Nika Spaulding

Hair crew — Addie McMillan and Maddux Morrison

Publicity and concessions manager — Josiah Smith

Publicity crew — Lilah Cross

Concessions crew — Piper Craig, Lilah Cross, Ellie Seago, Else Miller and Charlotte Wiggins

Show artwork — Maddux Morrison

House manager — River Arnold

Ushers — Lilah Cross, Dakota Ewan, Ella Miller, Ellie Seago, Kenzie Wood and Christopher Young