Diversity in Excellence

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Feature

A moment from Cyrando de Bergerac at Interlochen Arts Academy in 2010
A moment from Cyrando de Bergerac at Interlochen Arts Academy in 2010
We celebrate six standout schools in the 2011 Stage Directions High School Theatre Honors Program

There’s big, there’s small. There’s the public art magnet school and there’s the Jewish parochial academy where all theatre-related classes and activities are done outside regular school hours. But all the schools honored here (nominated by our readers, chosen by SD staff) share an unabashed passion for theatre and a desire to turn that into a life-long love of the performing arts. Without any further ado, here are the six programs that are inspiring students to performing and technical excellence.

MIDWEST - The Interlochen Arts Academy
The Interlochen Arts Academy Boarding School in Interlochen, Mich., is one of two boarding schools honored this year. “The Theatre Arts department at Interlochen has 80 students and stages five or six productions a year,” says William Church, director of comparative arts at Interlochen. “Students study theatre for up to five hours a day, taking classes in acting technique, audition technique, acting for the camera, acting Shakespeare, acting for musical theatre, dance for musical theatre, song for musical theatre, stage movement, voice and diction, improvisation and directing, among other topics. Since we offer many different art forms, theatre majors also get the opportunity to collaborate with musicians, dancers, writers and artists of all disciplines.” Church was actually a student at the school in the 1980s.

Recent productions include Antigone, A Christmas Carol, Love’s Labours Lost, Arabian Nights, Little Women and Seussical. Students take classes and perform in the Harvey Theatre Complex that features a costume shop with a 15,000-piece collection. The main theatre inside the complex is the 1,000-seat Corson Auditorium.

The boarding-school aspect by default makes Interlochen a fully immersive experience. “Students have roommates, often from different majors and this helps them to experience and better understand the different art forms we offer.”

In addition to the main stage, plays are done at the primary venue, the Harvey Theater, a three-quarter thrust space which has 175 seats and a suspension grid. The sound console is a Yahama PM5D-RH. The speakers in Harvey are Electro Voice 1152’s. The lighting console is an ETC Element. There’s also a 200-seat black box theatre currently under renovation.

“I am particularly fond of our production of Chicago from 2006,” Church says. “It was directed by Robin Ellis and featured Lora Lee Gayer, who is currently appearing in Follies on Broadway. Of pieces that I have directed, I am particularly proud of last year’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which featured a cast of 41 and a beautiful lighting design by a student, Matthew Rogers.

Not surprisingly, there’s an impressive list of alumni, who often return to share their experiences with their current students.

“Probably the most exciting plan around here is that the Academy is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The year will be filled with special guests, performances and an exciting symposium in the fall of 2012 that will examine issues relating to the future of the arts and arts education. These are exciting times!”

St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire recently performed The Shadow Box.
St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire recently performed The Shadow Box.

NORTHEAST - St. Paul's School
“My goal is always to be thinking about college choices and what opportunities are available so when they get to their senior year, they can really be prepared,” says David Valdés, director of the theatre program at St. Paul’s School. He constantly inquires with programs to see what skills and traits are in the ideal college freshman so his students are not only prepared but are “likely a step ahead.”

 

“This program helps us to learn the techniques and deep intricacies of acting while at the same time having an open space we can explore,” writes one of his students.  “I am never afraid to make mistakes in class.”

Located in Concord, N.H., the coeducational boarding school for grades 9-12 was founded in 1956. There are 537 students and 101 faculty members, all living on the grounds. The theatre division offers classes in acting, scene study, advanced acting techniques, theatre production and design, film production and advanced studies in theatre. Classes are periodically offered in stage makeup, improvisation and other disciplines as well.

Valdés is in his fourth year at the school. “The theatre program only offered four courses and today they have 15,” he says. The program has grown from 40 students to 86 and “we’ll hit 140 soon.”

There are three performance spaces, including an 800-seat theatre, though that is mostly used as a concert hall. “We do most of our shows in our 140-seat black box, which we can configure in many different ways, including in the round. We also have an outdoor theatre in the middle of the wood with a beautiful backdrop that includes a pond. We most recently did Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and it was wonderful.”

For the black box, they did just bring in a new ETC Ion with fader wing and put in 24 Chauvet Colorado Tour 1 LEDs. There are also two High End Techno Beam moving mirror units and one cyberlight. The sound board is a Mackie 164 VLZ Pro and they are planning on buying a wireless remote this year.

Recent productions include The Exonerated, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Wilderness of Mirrors, The Shadow Box, Rumors and currently, An Ordinary Man. “I’ve made it my mission to choose material that is educational and reflective of the issues we face today,” Valdés says.

Students from the Jewish Community High School of the Bay worked with San Francisco troupe Word for Word on a production of The Metamorphosis
Students from the Jewish Community High School of the Bay worked with San Francisco troupe Word for Word on a production of The Metamorphosis

NORTHWEST - The Jewish Community High School of the Bay
At the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, in San Francisco, Calif., it’s all about collaboration, says chair of the visual and performance arts, drama, Dylan Russell. Russell has been chair for four years, but has been working at the school for nearly a decade. Her relatively small department is supplemented with many local professionals who are brought in for special sessions to work with the students. This includes everything from a dialect coach to a professional sound engineer. The collaboration works the other way too: Recently students did a show with San Francisco’s Word for Word, an innovative professional theatre company that takes short works of fiction and makes them fully-staged pieces of theatre. “We helped with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and it brought a whole different layer to the piece. It was a wonderful experience for the students.” They took it to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival.

 

She does all this outside the boundaries of the traditional school day. “Our students come from the whole Jewish spectrum, orthodox to liberal,” Russell explains. “Half of their day is spent in Judaic studies, the other half in core classes, so what we provide is mostly extra-curricular.”

Student involvement is in all areas, including set construction, lighting and collaboration with studio art classes for scenery painting and prop fabrication. Past performances include Little Shop of Horrors, 12 Angry Jurors, Cabaret, Once Upon a Mattress, Zombie Prom and Working.

“We also occasionally offer a playwriting/screenwriting class and three years ago we had such a phenomenal class we did a special presentation of the new work created in it.”
Six years ago they gutted what was essentially a lecture hall space and created a true theatre. Today it’s a beautiful 200-seat facility. It features an ETC SmartFade 12/48 light board and a Mackie 1604-VLZ pro audio board.

Their school’s religious conviction keeps them from performing in festivals, as they observe the Sabbath of Saturday. That made an invitation to go to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival this past August all the more exciting. “It was incredible,” she says.

“I hope to continue to build the program I have and continue to expose the students to the widest range of theatre I possibly can,” she adds. “Whether they go on to pursue theatre or not, what I’m looking to do is create a love for the arts and help them use art to explore themselves and gain confidence and strength.”

Students from the Alabama School of Fine Arts perform Spring Awakening
Students from the Alabama School of Fine Arts perform Spring Awakening

SOUTHEAST - Alabama School of the  Fine Arts
Jonathan Fuller of the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala. can boast of an equity member candidacy program and that they do co-productions with a local equity company. “We’ve brought 35 equity memberships into the program since February,” he says.

 

Fuller has a passion for the school as he was one of the original graduates back in 1974 when it was a pilot program. “The state made it essentially a charter school, so it started with creative writing, dance, music, visual arts and theatre. We’re now the second oldest public arts school in the country.”

Fuller, instructor of acting and directing, says the theatre department has around 50 students and “it’s a very intensive program—like a small conservatory. We treat our students like members of a company and everybody does everything as far as technical aspects.” There are classes in tech, acting, costuming and design. At different times there’s also special offerings in combat, physical comedy and mime.

Currently they are working on Stage Door and recent productions include Spring Awakening, Raisin in the Sun, Runaway, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Three Musketeers.
They typically have three performing spaces, though one is being re-designed. “It’ll be completed in January, have 500 seats and for the first time we’ll have a fly system and wing space,” Fuller says happily. “I’m so used to working with constraints that I’m hoping we can do something really big, like Nicholas Nickleby.”

Those working on the project include designer/consultant Jeff Quin of Livedesign Group and Michael Ferguson of Stage House and Lighting-Theatre Projects Consulting. The new space will feature a Roland M-400 Digital Audio Console controlling a dedicated L-C-R loudspeaker array using d&b speakers along with EAW fills, surround and monitor speakers. There will also be a Strand Lighting console driving 400 ETC Source Fours with another 100 various lights plus two Lycian HMI Followspots.

Fuller is understandably proud of the equity aspect. “Last February, they joined up with my small theatre company, City Equity Theatre, which is Birmingham’s only company operating under an Actors’ Equity Contract in our city’s history,” he says. Today City Equity is allowed by the union to offer the Equity Membership candidacy program to non-professionals. “This makes the Alabama School of Fine Arts one of, if not the only, high school in the United States with such a program as part of its curriculum.”

Chaparral High School’s production of Anything Goes
Chaparral High School’s production of Anything Goes

SOUTHWEST - Chaparral High School
“Chaparral High School is an outstanding traditional high school with strong academics and strong athletics, but also very much values the arts,” says David Peterson. It’s his 17th year at the school, his 10th as director of theatre. Located in Parker, Colo., southeast of Denver, the department produces four major productions a year, including a musical, a play, an underclassmen show and a student-written talent show. Plus, they do up to eight in-class productions.

 

“We offer a variety of classes, including five different levels of acting classes and two levels of technical classes,” Peterson says. “There are a lot of different ways for students to get involved.” They’ve taken productions on the road and recently were invited to the National Performing Arts Festival where they received the highest rating of Superior and got to perform at Disney World. In 2009, students were awarded the Judge’s trophy at the National Performing Arts Festival and the year before they presented the main stage performance at the Colorado State Thespian Conference.

Recent productions include Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Diary of Anne Frank, Anything Goes, Jane Eyre, Seussical and Noises Off. The school has 2,000 students, with up to 200 in the program and 50 to 130 involved in any one of the main productions.

Their main stage seats 400 and features a 46-foot-wide proscenium. “We have a good sound system, with a Soundcraft Series II analog board, though we’re actually thinking of bring in a digital one or perhaps a hybrid of some kind,” he says. “When I got here 10 years ago, I had the speakers all custom built by Bret Dowlen of Dowlen Sound and to this day we’re pleased with how they sound.” The theatre has an ETC Express 48/96 lighting console and more than 100 dimmers. “We’ve been trying to add lights to the inventory and recently got a High End Technobeam. Otherwise, we will rent LED lights depending on the show.”

He’s proud that his is an educational theatre where the students learn as they do. “I have students that design and hang lights—I try to just take an advisement role.”
Peterson says he most wants to share his passion for theatre. “Hopefully we can continue to develop young actors and technicians and have them leave here with a passion for theatre their entire life.”

CANADA - Victoria School for the Arts
Victoria School for the Arts is in a building that is Edmonton, Canada’s, oldest theatre. Built in 1947, it was slated for demolition in 1986 when arts-loving community members thought it would make a good arts school. Turned out they were right.

Technical Coordinator Nico Van Der Kley is a “lifer," in his 26th year at the school, and also has 20 years with IATSE Local 210. He says the K–12 school is unique in the amount of arts available to the student. They do one major musical a year (this year it’s Willie Wonka), a play and a mix of dance-oriented productions.

The 1,800 students that attend the school have much available to them. There are three levels of acting, directing, writing for stage and screen, improvisation and theatre performance. “Technical studies are part of the work experience program and we offer numerous leadership opportunities either in our production or other live school events,” Van Der Kley says.

In 1998, Victoria developed directing curricula for students in grades 11 and 12. Students examine first hand the role of the director in modern theatre. As a part of their Playworks Festival, students are given the opportunity to lead a directorial process from script selection through casting and rehearsals to performance.

The main theatre seats 690 and the audio console is a 48-channel Yamaha M7.  “Our lighting is still running on the Strand 550 lighting console and I know it’s a little older, but we see no solid need to change it yet,” he says. “We haven’t brought in any moving lights yet because of the maintenance costs, so if there’s something specific I need, I just rent or borrow it.”

Other recent productions include White Christmas, Curtains the Musical, The Laramie Project, My Fair Lady and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Currently they are working on a multi-media presentation of the Odyssey, which will lean heavily on the school’s film and video department. “Producing a show with modern technology gets tricky, but as I like to tell my students, ‘after you’re done with this project, you’ll know how to do it,’” he laughs. “At first I get a lot of blank looks but afterwards they understand.”

Van Der Kley tells his technical students that the best compliment is when the audience doesn’t notice their work, but just “leave thinking it was just magic.”