Reading our annual High School Theatre Honors Program articles, in some ways it seems it’s “easy” to have one of the best theatre programs in the country. “All” you need is a dedicated administration, a community with over-the-top unwavering support and someone leading the program who has a fiery passion for the arts that is infectious.
Hundreds of good to great programs have most of those elements, but according to our readers, here are five that have it all. (And “all” doesn’t mean cutting-edge facilities—some are creating great theatre in modest spaces.) They all have something else in common, too: their selection of work for the students is offbeat and bold.
Sanford Calhoun High School
Under the very educated direction of Sal Salerno, students are given the opportunity to be leaders in technical theatre and performing roles in order to achieve great shows,” writes Jacklyn Scmcyk, a student at Sanford Calhoun.
Salerno has been building the program since 1985, having received degrees at Hofstra University and doing post-graduate work at New York University. Around 100 students audition for the program, with only 30 selected every year. They do four major productions: “The first is a Shakespeare play, the second is something contemporary, the third is a musical, and the fourth varies,” says Salerno. Their interpretation of the Bard is “kind of our hallmark” and at a Shakespeare festival this year they won an award for best actor and four design awards. Recent productions include Hamlet, Grapes of Wrath, Kiss Me Kate, and The Laramie Project. This year they are doing As You Like It and The Man Who Came to Dinner. “We’re hoping to do Phantom of the Opera” he says, though it’ll depend on if they can raise additional revenue.
Sanford Calhoun has two theatres, a recently renovated 155-seat one and an 8000-seat auditorium. The theatres feature older ETC Element Express boards that run Elation Synchro-Spots, Chauvet LED Pars and ETC Source Fours. For sound, two Mackie sound boards mix “a lot” of Sennheiser mics. Currently they are planning an assessment on their rigging for an upgrade, as well as continuing the move to more LED fixtures. When that happens a new lighting board will be needed.
The four-year program includes equal emphasis on theatre history and tech in addition to the performance aspect, with students having to work 100 “crew hours” a year, though “many go above and beyond that.”
Kennesaw Mountain High School
Kennesaw Mountain High School is (KMHS) theatre program is directed by Coy Dunn, who has a Masters from Berry College and has been at Kennesaw for nine years. Brandon Morris, who has been teacher there for three years, assists him. The Atlanta suburban school is “actually a Math, Science and Technology magnet with an excellent fine arts program,” Dunn says. They have around 200 drama students in six block classes each semester. Classes include Fundamentals of Theatre, Children’s Theatre, Advanced Acting, Technical Theatre and Advanced Tech. “We currently have 70 technical theatre students who handle all of the school’s behind the scenes needs,” says Dunn, and apparently they do a good job of it. KMHS has received the Best Set Award at their regional one-act play competition for the past nine years.
It all comes from an emphasis on learning. “If students can fit it into their schedules, there are eight different acting classes and eight separate tech classes the students may take,” he says. “Each class advances in skill level as the student continues to develop.”
KMHS has a 691-seat theatre and a black box, and a new lighting system was recently installed with funds from an extra tax voted on by the county. They average five productions a year, including a competition one-act play, two student-directed one-act plays, a full scale children’s theatre production and a spring comedy or a musical. Their one-act plays have won eight regional championships in the past nine years, and they were state champions in 2010.
“We have done Shakespeare and many literary classics such as Oliver Twist, Lord of the Flies, and Pride and Prejudice, as well as modern Pulitzer Prize winning plays like Wit, Rabbit Hole and The Kentucky Cycle,” says Dunn. And he gets a big thumbs up for students: “The plays at this school have always been fantastic,” says student Anna Fernandez.
Appleton North High School
Ron Parker, head of the program at Appleton North believes in setting the bar higher and higher. One example? Appleton was the first theatre company to use ZFX Flying Effects’ chandelier in their production of The Phantom of the Opera, which is now being used all over the country.
And his efforts have been recognized. Parker has been awarded Teacher of the Year, received an Herb Kohl Fellowship for Excellence in Education, and been inducted into the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association’s Theatre Directors Hall of Fame.
For their musicals, the cast can be nearly 100, plus another 30 on tech, and more than 25 student musicians in the pit. In addition to the musical, they do a fall one-act competition and a spring show with about 50 students. “We also have a Drama Club which typically involves about 120 or so students,” Parker says. “Drama Club’s big yearly project is putting on a popular haunted house in our theatre. We normally have nearly 3,000 go through over a three day period.”
Their theatre seats 714, and just purchased a new ETC Ion board. Their soundboard is a Soundcraft Series Two. Beyond
that gear, they do a lot with a little: “Our theatre is lacking in many areas including the lack of a fly house, pit and adequate wing space,” Parker says. “Lack of a fly requires many set pieces to be wagons and the limited wing space makes parking set pieces something like playing a giant game of Tetris.”
They were the first non-professional company to produce Aida and also Monty Python's Spamalot. “We were the first company to be given permission to perform Tony Award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman’s production of Argonautika, which the playwright attended,” he says. “We also built an 1,800 gallon pool of water on stage for her production of Metamorphosis.” As to the future: “We’re hoping Lion King becomes available sometimes before the end of the century!” he laughs.
Helena High School
Robert Holter has been teaching for 23 years, but maintains his professional credentials with membership in IATSE, USITT and other organizations. This professionalism translates to his students. His ability to train his students on all things technical is impressive to the point that when the Local gets overwhelmed, they hire his kids to work on professional shows and live events.
He runs two programs: Students must audition for the Main Stage, and those who get in train in upper-level classes during the school day. Then there are some productions held after school that anyone can audition for and be in. They do a total of five shows a year, including a recent production of a new musical The Boy Who Spoke Colors, created by a former student. This year they will be doing Once Upon a Mattress, Two Gentlemen from Verona, and one or two other new shows. “We try to do a lot of original work because it gives the playwrights a place to have their work performed, and it’s a great opportunity for the students,” he says.
They work in a 220-seat theatre, but “we’re very creative with it.” Occasionally for bigger products they use the local civic auditorium. “It’s a privilege working with the administration of the high school, who see kids come out of school and make a career of theatre. They are supportive of it.”
Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts
Huntington Beach, Calif.
“We are a district magnet program,” says Robert Rotenberry, theatre department chair at the Huntington Beach Academy. Rotenberry has a BFA in Theatre Education from Virginia Commonwealth University plus a Masters in Directing from the University of Maryland College Park, and has been at Huntington Beach Academy for 17 years.
Their theatre department produces five full-length shows a year—two main stage, three in their black box theatre—plus three showcases. “We have also produced two festivals of original student-written and directed plays for the last 15 years, featuring 10-minute and one-act plays,” Rotenberry says. “All of our main stage shows are student designed, with students creating the sets, lights, sound and costumes for our productions.”
Recent productions include Titanic, Play Ball, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Singing in the Rain. This year they are doing Xanadu, The Diary of Anne Frank and Night of the Living Dead, among others.
Nearly 300 students go through the program a year. “The training is advanced with many classes equal to those at the college level. Students in acting study for three levels, which includes acting styles which covers periods from Ancient Greece to Absurd to our Actors Rep company. Musical Theatre has four levels. Technical students start off with Production and Design before advancing to Tech and Costume 2 where they design, build and paint sets, design and run lights and sound, do set dressing and props and run crew. As in a college program the student must audition/interview for acceptance.”
They’ve received many awards through the years, and a recent production of Leading Ladies was selected as the top show in Area 2 in the high school theatre festival for the California Educational Theatre Association. Other productions have received the National Youth Arts Award for Outstanding Production, a Cappies for Best Set Design and Best Musical Competition, and a Macy Award, among others.