The fourth man-eating plant to grace Heritage High’s stage in three decades. (Photo by Wendy Meese, 2023)
The cast list for Heritage High School’s 2023 fall musical had been up on Facebook for minutes, and comments from enthusiastic community members were already trickling in. The show was “Little Shop of Horrors”—a special one for the Pioneer Theatre department, which is putting on the musical for the fourth time in 30 years.
Heritage High theatre director Larry “Biff” Hart has been around for all three previous productions: one in 1996, one in 2004, and one in 2012. He popped into the comments with a message for alumni: “Saturday, October 21 will be closing night. I am challenging each of the previous casts to pull it together…and support these kids! I am eager to see all of you former Seymours, Audreys, Orins & Street Urchins!”
Soon, the thread was populated by Pioneer Theatre graduates reminiscing about their own “Little Shop” days. Funny, quirky, and gruesome, the musical follows a poor florist’s assistant whose craving for fame and fortune leads him to play nursemaid to a man-eating plant. But a shared love for the show isn’t the only thing bringing these alumni back to their high-school haunts.
From Lynchburg to Broadway
A few hundred miles north in New York City, Pioneer Theatre alumna Carole Lucas reminisced on her 1996 performance as a street urchin in “Little Shop.” Currently acting as a swing on Broadway in “MJ the Musical,” Lucas has a four-year Broadway run with “The Book of Mormon;” years of national tours and regional theatre; and film and television roles on projects like “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “Succession,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “The Blacklist,” and “The Equalizer” under her belt.
Carole Lucas (left) performs in “Little Shop” in 1996.
The 1996 production of “Little Shop” featured in the school yearbook.
“I didn’t realize just how much we did during our Pioneer Theatre days. We helped put the set together and tear it down…we even designed our own costumes,” Lucas said. “I got a chance to see how theatre works from all sides as opposed to just coming in as an actor, and that was really valuable to my future career.”
Lucas’s love for musical theatre started the summer before high school, when she participated in a summer acting program through LCS. She took theatre classes and acted in shows at Heritage High until she graduated in 1998 and went on to study musical theatre at James Madison University. She acted for Disney World and cruise ships before moving to New York City, where she scored her first Broadway role. Though Lucas has come a long way since her high school days, she looks back on them with fondness.
“We were a community. There was no ego, and we cheered each other on. Biff found a way to include everybody so no one felt left out,” Lucas said.
Lifelong Skills and Friendships
A ten-minute drive away from the stage Lucas performs on, Pioneer Theatre alumnus Dustin West manages personnel at Summit One Vanderbilt, a story-driven immersive art experience. His love for performance developed at Heritage High, where he played Mr. Mushnik in the 2004 production of “Little Shop” his senior year. From there, he attended Virginia Commonwealth University for film and photography.
From left to right: Ashley Wright as Audrey, Dustin West as Mr. Mushnik, Aaron Horton as Chorus Member, Michael Chagnon as Seymour Krelborn, and Casey Bianco as a street urchin in 2004.
“The Heritage theatre program touches on every single artistic path you could take in life, whether you’re into painting, prop-making, video, sound, musical instrumentation, singing, or acting,” West said. “Folks walk away with a lot of valuable experience they can carry into their future careers.”
More than 10 years after graduating from high school, West returned home to help Heritage High videotape its shows for a season. Reconnecting with Hart was a meaningful experience, he recalls. He attributes many of the skills he’s developed and friends he’s made to Pioneer Theatre.
“One of my absolute best friends since childhood, Michael Chagnon, was in 'Little Shop' with me. We work together in New York, we were in a band together…it’s a great friendship and artistic collaboration,” West said. “Our bond wouldn’t be the same without our time in high school theatre.”
An Eye for Style
Pioneer Theatre alumna Kylie Morris played Audrey in the 2012 production of “Little Shop.” Her experience doing hair and makeup for period and fantasy shows at Heritage High ignited an interest that became a decade-long career. She’s currently a hairstylist in Lynchburg, and she’s studying at Central Virginia Community College with plans to become an English or theatre teacher.
Heritage High students perform “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2012
“Theatre gave me a lot of self-confidence. Getting roles and having a job on a team …a lot of people are depending on you, and you learn to work hard, communicate, and trust other people,” Morris said.
Morris plans to rise to Hart’s Facebook challenge, and it won’t be the first time she’s returned to her alma mater after graduating. She sees shows from time to time, especially when old friends come back as guest directors.
“I made lifelong friends through theatre,” Morris said. “It was really important for me to have that creative outlet as a teen.”
A Return Home
This year’s production of “Little Shop” is directed by class of 2020 graduate Taylor Wisskirchen and choreographed by class of 2018 graduate Hattie Jones. It’s an embodiment of the unique sense of community that follows Pioneer Theatre alumni long after graduation.
“Returning to this theatre program felt like coming home,” said Wisskirchen, lovingly known as “Ms. Wiss” among students. “I want to create the same supportive environment for these kids that I had in high school. And I want to push the boundaries, to challenge them to go even further.”
Wisskirchen graduated from Old Dominion University and taught special education in Campbell County before coming back to Heritage High as a theatre teacher this year. Her mom taught Spanish at Heritage High for 26 years–“the original Ms. Wiss,” Wisskirchen jokes.
“My mom acted in ‘Ragtime,’ and I remember one night, she let me open the curtain. From there, I was hooked,” said Wisskirchen, who spent her high school years immersed in the art of technical theatre.
The 2023 cast of “Little Shop” prepares for opening night. (Photo by Wendy Meese, 2023)
The Next Generation
It’s been three decades since Lucas and her castmates performed “Little Shop,” but today’s students still echo her sentiments about the program.
Heritage High senior Salem Dews, who plays Orin, plans to become a voice actor with the skills they’ve honed through theatre at Lynchburg City Schools.
“I honestly don’t know what I’d do without theatre. The community is great, and it’s made my life so much better,” Dews said.
The show will run Oct. 13, 14, 19, 20, and 21 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. Get tickets here.