Sarah Smith can be a very different person every time she walks onto the stage.

In one scene, she’s a tap dancer. In another, a circus show girl. In a third, a townsperson.

Her supporting role as the Witch has her playing a very confident, larger-than-life character with plenty of lines and a demanding solo for her Alto 2 voice.

“It’s a lot to remember,” said Smith, 17, a Carlisle High School senior. “It’s a lot of work to be an ensemble member. You are acting, singing and dancing all at the same time.”

A Dickinson Township resident, she is one of about 60 students gearing up to present the musical “Big Fish” Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the McGowan building auditorium at Carlisle High School.

For Smith, every role demands a different delivery, a different look and attitude, and lots and lots of words and personality committed to memory. And she has to keep it all straight.

“On the stage, you have to stay focused,” said Smith, a veteran of four high school musicals. “You can’t let your mind wander or yourself just enjoy the scene. You have to know what is coming next.”

Lead roles

Classmate Ozzy Smith plays Edward Bloom, the lead male role. The part will challenge him to maintain a stage presence through all but the last two scenes.

“I just love theater,” said Smith, 18, of North Middleton Township. “It’s a lot of work, but the end product is always worth it. I love working with a whole bunch of people to put on a show that we can all learn to love.”

This passion shows in the workload. Since early December, the cast has been rehearsing for the production almost every day after school. On top of that are many hours spent at home learning the songs and the script, practicing the dance routines, listening to the soundtrack and watching performances on video.

The more the cast unravels it, the more excited they get at the opportunity to present “Big Fish” to an audience, Smith said. “It’s just a feeling you can’t replicate.”

Fellow senior Sarah Swahlon plays the female lead of Sandra Bloom, wife of Edward. The role has its own set of challenges and opportunities for the 18-year-old from North Middleton Township.

“This musical is filled with a lot of different little stories and flashbacks,” Swahlon said. “I actually play Sandra when she is a teenager, a college-aged girl, a young mom, an older mom and a grandma. I have to do a lot of changing up the voice and making my actions older and younger in between times.

“Sometimes I feel I’m not meant for this role … that I’m not meant to be able to do it,” Swahlon said. “But the people around you are the ones that help you realize you are doing this because you love it. That’s what really gets you through it. You are passionate about it.”

Like so many students in a high school musical production, Swahlon has mastered the art of being a jack- (or Jacqueline) of-all-trades. Not only is she a main character, she helped to construct many of the sets and helped her mother fabricate many of the props.


Classmate Jamie Hafner, 18, of Carlisle, went from being on the ensemble her freshman through junior years to being the student director/stage manager in “Big Fish.”

“It’s 10 jobs wrapped into one,” said Hafner, who volunteered for the experience because she wants to major in art administration in college. “I’m part of the show from start to finish.”

A self-described “giant theater nerd,” Hafner first heard of “Big Fish” in 2013. She was excited when she learned Carlisle was going to put on the musical her senior year.

Her involvement began in October when auditions were held. Hafner was on the panel that judged each performance and finalized the cast list.

From there, her job turned to paperwork and planning for the sets, costumes, advertising and many other details involved with a major stage production.

With a cast and crew in full rehearsal mode, her work now is mostly about wrangling students backstage, making sure they know where to stand, where to enter and how to behave. “I’m basically in charge of all my peers,” Hafner said.

Recently, she put together a stage manager’s box, a kind of survival kit in case of an emergency. Items include extra make-up appliers and removers, bobby pins, Band-Aids and a flashlight. “It has everything I could possibly need if something goes wrong.”

But with all the management demands come opportunities to help other students reach their full potential. One of her jobs as student director was to offer advice to cast members on how to interpret their lines and act out their character.

“It’s magical to see them not only fall in love with a unique and beautiful tale, but to grow as a person,” Hafner said. “Seeing them blossom is a joy.”

Tech side

Other students have discovered they can make a contribution without appearing on stage. Sophomores Sean Jones and Liam Crider are behind-the-scenes technicians.

As an audio engineer, Jones constantly monitors the sound board and wireless mikes to make sure every cast member can be heard by the audience. The work involves equalizing the volume across the spectrum while reducing any feedback or distortion.

In middle school, Jones was part of the cast, but he decided in high school to switch to engineering. “I’ve never once thought of going back,” Jones said. “I enjoy tech things. It’s a way I can be involved without having to commit to being a performer.”

As for Crider, his role in sound effects and as the wireless technician is his first real involvement with a school activity. The wireless part of the job was completed early with setting up the network of mikes. Now his main function is to make sure each unit has a working battery.

Sound effects involve Crider closely following the script as the cast acts out each scene. Timing is vital when success depends on triggering each pre-packaged downloaded effect on the computer at the exact moment when it is needed. Often, Crider has to coordinate the sound effect with a lighting effect.

The tech crew started rehearsing with the cast the week before “Big Fish” is set to open to the public. The first week is spent getting used to the blend of sound, light, music and dialogue. It is the time for the cast and crew to make any necessary adjustments.

The days leading to opening night are particularly intense with rehearsals lasting from 6 to 10 p.m. “That second week, it has to be perfect,” Jones said. Any miscue or mishap would be obvious to the public.

“It’s fun to know you are adding to it,” Crider said. “That your job is important.”

Email Joseph Cress at