Sunday, May 08, 2005

REV: Dear to my heart . . .

From the venerable New York Times:



The Supersizing of the School Play
By JESSE GREEN
Published: May 8, 2005

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — Plunked down in front of an $18,000 mixing console, the two eighth-grade boys looked terrified. They had never run a sound board before, and suddenly here they were, one Monday last month, up in the balcony of the 900-seat auditorium at New Albany High School, desperately trying to tame the blinking, glowering, 40-channel behemoth. Reading dials and pushing slides, with a stage manager constantly calling cues in their earphones, they started to fumble and sweat as the cast of "Into the Woods," way down below on the stage, went through a tech rehearsal. Nothing seemed to work right. Hideous feedback alternated with thunderous explosions each time a word began with P. Microphones came on in midsentence or while the actors were still offstage discussing homework. And there were only three days left until opening night.

Though they couldn't quite feel it, the two hapless boys were far from alone. For in New Albany and beyond, high school theater - that land of expressionistic face-painting and galumphing tap routines, that refuge of nerds and spazzes, directed by former nerds and spazzes in endless cycles of "Annie" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" - has evolved into something far more elaborate. The facilities at New Albany include closed-circuit television monitors, 30 fly rails for raising and lowering set pieces, a large scene shop with its own loading bay. Forget cardboard sets and costumes made from sheets; New Albany's "Beauty and the Beast" last fall featured flying teenagers and motorized vehicles and cost $165,000.

As the year's "small" show, "Into the Woods" would not be on that level; the budget for the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy-tale musical was only about $25,000. Still, this was no "Waiting for Guffman Jr."; when you adjust for the labor provided free by the student cast and crews, plus adult volunteers and school faculty on minuscule stipends for extracurricular work, New Albany's expenditures were not far removed from those of, say, an Off Broadway theater. Sometimes not far removed in quality, either. The 2003 production of "Crazy for You" that began at New Albany transferred for a weeklong run at a professional summer stock amphitheater in Louisville. Three times in the last eight years, New Albany has been invited to attend the Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., a showcase for the best student productions, where participants get an eyeful of the competition and colleges scout for fresh talent.

While New Albany may be an extreme case - most high schools don't own their own fog machines - it is part of a national trend toward the supersizing of school-based theater. Castle High School in Kaneohe, Hawaii; Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wis.; New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa.; and Las Vegas Academy in Las Vegas, Nev.: these and many others can spend more on one show than they do on the drama teacher's annual salary. Because they are pouring more into their musicals - and thus having to sell more tickets, at higher prices - schools are becoming big business for licensing companies like Music Theater International and R&H Theatricals, which in the past made nearly all of their money from professional productions. Freddie Gershon, chairman of M.T.I., estimates that licensing for the school market is now a $75 million to $100 million annual business.

When did it stop being enough to put a kid in his dad's old vest and have him sing "Sue Me" in a Noo Yawk accent? Probably sometime before puberty. Today, even grade school students (and their schools) are being cultivated with "junior" versions of Broadway shows from M.T.I. and the "Getting to Know You" series from R&H. (Yes, fourth graders can now do a 70-minute "King and I," albeit without the deep kissing.) By the time they return from high school drama club trips to New York, they want to perform the sophisticated roles, and replicate the increasingly dazzling effects, they enjoyed as audience members.

Read the rest here. . .

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