The story of the journey of women who are bilingual switchboard operators will make its off-Broadway debut at ShenanArts from Thursday through Sunday.
But their journey is no ordinary story.
“The Hello Girls” shares the tales of five women who made history when they volunteered to serve in World War I.
“I think that I just want [the audience] to, first of all, appreciate this story and understand what these women did, not only for [women in] military service,” said Cassy Maxton-Whitacre, the production’s director and theatre arts lead at Shenandoah Valley Governors School, said.
Women entering military service in WWI not only encouraged further admittance of women in the military, but also helped advance the push for women to acquire voting rights in the U.S.
Maxton-Whitacre said one character in the production asks: “Do you know why women aren’t allowed to vote?”
In the early 1900s, men were considered qualified to vote because they could fight for their country. Once women were permitted to serve in the military and were “seen as equal contributors,” Maxton-Whitacre said, the argument that they could not vote lost traction.
Originally, “The Hello Girls” was written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI, but its staging at ShenanArts this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote.
Among the challenges of bringing the production to the stage, Maxton-Whitacre said, is the harmonies.
“They’re beautiful, but they’re tricky,” she said.
Maxton-Whitacre said costumes have also been a challenge for the production, as well as finding WWI-related items.
“Finding costumes that work, and really help us tell the story,” she said.
However, the show’s challenges have been overcome with costumes which are being made especially for the show, a choreographer, music director, and a cast of students from SVGS whom Maxton-Whitacre said “have stepped up” to make the production successful.
“The kids are just awesome,” Maxton-Whitacre said, and the production’s characters were written in a way so that they are “well rounded.”
Maxton-Whitacre said she began looking for a musical production in March 2019 for her students to perform. Through an online education forum, she was contacted by a representative for the production’s publisher who offered the play’s production rights free of charge.
After reading the script, Maxton-Whitacre said she liked the idea of bringing the production to ShenanArts, but she wondered if an ensemble could be added to the story so that more of her students could participate in a production that was originally written for only 10 cast members.
She said the publisher wanted the opportunity to pilot an extended high school production of the production, and twenty-three SVGS students are in the production.
“I didn’t hesitate too long,” Maxton-Whitacre said of making her final decision to bring the production to the Valley.
She let her students listen to the music, and they thought it was great.
“The music is great. The story is so cool,” Maxton-Whitacre said. She added that she loves stories about women doing what we do not realize they did.
Most important for Maxton-Whitacre is that the production highlights five female roles, which is difficult to find in a theater production.
Throughout the process of bringing the production to the stage, Maxton-Whitacre and the cast have worked with the production’s publisher. For example, Maxton-Whitacre asked the publisher if it was alright to use the names of real people from WWI as names of additional characters in the production.
Maxton-Whitacre said that the original director and writer have requested video of the production at ShenanArts.
“We definitely feel [the pressure], but we can handle it,” Maxton-Whitacre said.
Ben Strassler, 16, is a junior at Staunton High School. He began acting five years ago, and has previously performed in productions at ShenanArts, Staunton High and Blue Ridge Community College.
In “The Hello Girls,” Ben will portray “Lt./Capt. Joseph Riser.”
“I did a lot of watching some war movies,” said Ben of preparing for his role.
He said he observed commanding officers in films like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon.”
Ben said at first his character does not understand the roles women can play in the U.S. Army.
“At the end [of the production], the way it seems to me, he’s found a new respect for women in the military,” Ben said.
Capt. Riser’s demeanor softens toward the women, Ben said, and he calls them by their first names, which was not considered proper etiquette at the time.
“[Capt. Riser is] a lot more friendly and a lot less critical of the girls [by the end of the production],” Ben said.
He said the story is about a time of change in the U.S., and before the ShenanArts production, he had never heard about this group of women in American history, and he loves history.
“I really hope that [audience members] recognize the story, because this story is really untold,” Ben said.
Ben said the story is “important for people to know.”
“It’s very well written. We’re very fortunate to able to do it,” he said.
For her role as the lead, one of the five switchboard operators “Grace Banker,” Emma Houseknecht, 17, did a lot of line memorization, singing and online research.
“Because she was a real person,” said Emma, a senior at Riverheads High School who lives in Staunton. “I did a lot of research on her as a person.”
This preparation has been Emma’s way of “trying to really get to know the character” she is portraying on stage.
Emma has been acting since she was 7 years old, she said, and appeared in performances at ShenanArts and The Wayne Theater.
She said being a part of “The Hello Girls” gave her an opportunity to learn what she did not learn in history class.
“It was cool learning about their role in the war, and how important it was,” Emma said.
Emma said she has a greater respect now for what the women in WWI did. They were not just connecting calls.
“They did put their lives at risk being there [just as much as men],” Emma said.
Emma said she has not felt pressure on the cast as the first high school production in a negative way, but in a fun and exciting way.
“I think this is a really cool opportunity that we’ve gotten to do this show,” she said.
As the first high school production, Emma and her classmates at the SVGS “get a lot of creative freedom” in bringing the show to ShenanArts.
“It’s just been kind of exhilarating,” she said.
Emma said she hopes the audience will be inspired to research and learn more about the women who served in WWI after seeing the show.
“I hope that this show will interest [the audience] in what these women have done,” Emma said.
The production is intended for audience members ages 10 and older.