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Building Greatness

Kevin M. Mitchell and Lisa Mulcahy • Feature • November 1, 2013

Everyone in theatre knows what it’s like to put on a show: The long weeks of rehearsal, the meticulous planning, the frenzied rush at the end to get it all done in time. Fewer people understand the sustained work that takes place over years and decades to make a good theatre program—but make no mistake, building a good program is an act of will that takes time.

“Since its inception, Interlochen has been dedicated to providing high quality arts education to students in many different fields,” says Bill Church, director of the theatre program at Interlochen Center for the arts. Interlochen represented the Midwest area in our 2011 High School Theatre Honors Program, and has been educating young artists year round since 1928. “Theatre has always been an important aspect of Interlochen’s curriculum, and the success of our faculty, students, and alumni is built upon many decades of hard work and a commitment to excellence.” With our Stage Directions High School Theatre Honors Program winners this year we recognize the years of hard work and dedication that have made these programs truly special.

A moment from Thoroughly Modern Millie at Floyd Central High School

Floyd Central High School
Floyds Knobs, Indiana

“We have consistently been recognized as one of the top theatre schools in the country by the Educational Theatre Association and have presented more main stage shows at the International Thespian Festival than any other school,” Robbie Steiner says.

This is actually Steiner’s first year at the helm of the program, which he inherited from his mentor Chris Bundy, who retired. “As I continue to build on the legacy that Mr. Bundy left behind, I have maintained the same level of quality productions and classroom experiences while expanding our already advanced technical theatre program.”

Robbie Steiner
He says they are in the process of revamping their lighting program as well as their lighting resources, having just purchased a new ETC Ion console and are in preparation for a complete overhaul of their main stage lighting system. “Our lighting students work closely with Michael Nevitt of Crossfade Designs, who comes in periodically to teach and help design. Tech students assist with the design of larger shows and have the opportunity to design smaller projects.”

Steiner is currently working on what he considers his most challenging production, Les Misérables. “This isn’t a show that allows for cutting corners, so we are committed to producing it on the grand scale it’s meant to be done on—massive sets, dynamic lighting, over 250 costumes and a full orchestra.”

He adds that they are blessed with two exceptional theatres. Their main one, with 850 seats, was renovated in 2010 and features a Soundcraft K2 sound console and JBL Pro speakers. Their “Studio One”, a 130-seat proscenium, was constructed during that renovation and features an ETC SmartFade console and Soundcraft console.

The “Be Our Guest” number in the New Canaan High School production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

New Canaan High School
New Canaan, Connecticut

It’s an honor to be named best theatre program of a region, sure; but how good to you have to be to be named when you actually don’t have a formal theatre program?

“We do not have theatre classes during the school day,” says coordinator of the program, Dee Alexander. It’s all after school and Saturdays, with the kids learning by doing. NCHS offers offers five shows every year including dramas, musicals and plays written and directed by students. In recent years she’s thrust the group into competitions which, while isn’t her favorite part of directorship, has certainly paid off in acclaim.

Dee Alexander

At a recent Connecticut Drama Association's Annual Festival, NCHS won 15 awards in total. At a recent Musical Theater Competition of America event they took home 17 awards. This season productions include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Little Women.

The school has a 900-seat theatre and Alexander says they are always trying to improve on the technical aspects. “It was renovated about six years ago, but they didn’t quite finish the job, so we’re always updating it.” They do that via fundraising, and a recent fundraising production of Beauty and the Beast was wildly successful for them. “That show almost killed me!” she laughs. They went big on it, electing to rent costumes from Maine State Music Theatre rather than try to make them themselves. They also brought in Flying by Foy, who mentored and supervised kids at the switch so they could do the flying.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones who get up every morning and love what I do,” Alexander says.

A Moment from Scapino!, the spring 2013 production at Riverton High School

Riverton High School
Riverton, Utah

Clin Eaton was at Riverton when the school opened for business in 1999, and got to build the program to his vision from scratch.

“We just participated in the Utah Shakes Festival where we took first place in their technical Olympics,” he says. “Our dancers took second place.”

There are four levels of theatre classes, a music dance theatre class (MDT) that’s for 24 kids, two stage crew classes, a Shakespeare class and two film classes. He runs it all with another full time theatre teacher, Erin McGuire. Up to 150 students a year come through at least one of their theatre classes.

Their musical this year is Hello Dolly, which will be followed up by their January Broadway Review by the MDT group. Previous productions include Scapino! and Assassins.

Clin Eaton, head of the theatre  program at Riverton High School

Eaton even takes a group of students to New York City every other year. “We’ve been doing it since 2002, and we see six shows together as a group and each individual sees another three on their own.”

No No Nanette was the most challenging production we’ve done so far," he says. We decided to really go old-fashioned on it and that meant old-school theatrical flats – that almost killed us because we don’t have fly space!”

Their 1,300-seat theatre just got updated with new fresnels, which was “thrilling because the old lights had bulbs going out every month!” They also have an ETC Express 48/96 lighting board and an Allen & Heath GL sound console.

“I try to be inclusive, and I’m positive and upbeat—it’s difficult to make me mad!” he says of his teaching style.

Crimes of the Heart at Huntingtown High School’s Little Theatre

Huntingtown High School
Huntington, Maryland

The progressive vision of theatre teacher and director Derek Anderson has propelled Huntingtown High School’s Eye of the Storm Productions to acclaim since 2004, garnering awards from the Folger Theatre and the Maryland Thespian Festival. “One of the main reasons our program works is that our students are continually learning and exploring the art form in new ways,” says Anderson. “This spring we’ll be doing Les Mis, and incorporating projections into the production, allowing our students to stretch by mastering a new technical process. I also want my acting students to do both comedy and tragedy by the time they graduate.”

Anderson tries to enable many students to shine. “We boasted a cast of 93 for Phantom of the Opera!” he recalls with pride. Senior Megan Bunn has participated in the theatre program for four years, and finds it literally life-changing. “I’ve become more aware of myself—I’m now planning on majoring in theatre in college, which I wasn’t even thinking of before. I’ve been given the opportunity to built and designed sets for two or three shows, been a hair designer, run the sound board—these experiences have taught me how every aspect of a production has to work together.”

Anderson feels he gets back as much as he gives. “My students keep my mind open to the world,” he enthuses. “Often a student will present a new creative challenge to me, I’ll realize how great it is—and we’ll do it! We collaborate as artists—I learn so much from those I teach.”

Drowsy Chaperone at the La Habra High School

La Habra High School
La Habra, California

The La Habra High School Theatre Guild puts up an astonishing 6-7 full productions per year, at a rate of about one show a month—and they’re not stopping any time soon. “We’re not a performing arts school,” says theatre director and teacher Brian Johnson. “The students in our program are really well-rounded. Currently, we have 12 varsity football players participating! These kids have such different backgrounds and interests and bring such fresh perspective to approaching theatre.”

La Habra’s seasons have been consistently bold and eclectic. “The plays that I pick allow for my students to try everything—The Wizard of Oz , Pride and Prejudice, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” says Johnson. “We’ve done an outdoor production, and a show in the round. Those kinds of physical diversities really immerse our students, teaching them new ways to communicate creatively.”

Johnson also teaches responsibility through stagecraft. “A student is often acting in one production, and rehearsing as a crew member for the next,” he explains. “I want these kids, especially those who think they’ll major in theatre arts in college, to understand that you can’t just work on one show and expect to make money—you have to learn to multi-task!” Being socially conscious is also crucial. “A few years back we staged Wit; we were able to raise about $6,000 for ovarian cancer research during its run,” Johnson says. ”I’m proud that our students learned they could succeed theatrically and do good with their work.”

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