Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Show Must Go On! By C.P. Stringham

Katie, as Meg, belting out her lines for Vendor Calls during Brigadoon while the rest of the cast listens in. 
(photo courtesy of Max Bennett)
This past weekend was a whirlwind! I find myself still riding on a musically-induced 

Always into Broadway shows, here's Syd singing
Jellicle Cats from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.

high knowing it will wear off and leave me crashing soon. There’s always coffee, right? My oldest participated in her first drama club production and loved it. Since pre-school, she has had a great fondness for musicals and has been known to break into song, singing some random Broadway show tune, for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that the mood moved her. Her first grade teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, would tell me that, while she was on recess duty, she used to get a kick out of watching my daughter portray The Phantom while singing Music of the Night to her classmate Shannon’s Christine. My husband and I have encouraged her year after year to try out for the cast, but her shyness always prevented her from going through with it. Not this year, however. She entered into the school’s chorus room and, in front of roughly fifty people, sang I’ve Decided to MarryYou from A Gentleman’s Guide to Loveand Murder, a song normally sung by three characters—and portrayed all three, using different voices with accents, for the audition. I wasn’t there, but from what I was told by others, she was marvelous. Syd isn’t a technically perfect soprano. Don’t get me wrong. She can most certainly carry a tune without making those in earshot cringe. She just isn’t going to hit that C above High C and shatter glass. What she lacks in vocal range and stamina, she makes up for in heart and soul. I only wish she hadn’t waited until her senior year of high school to realize she loves being on stage!
The Cast and Crew of ASAG's 2015 Production of Brigadoon!
(Photo courtesy of Ali Bennett)

Now, her participation hasn’t been all peachy on the homefront. Due to my husband’s job, evenings turn yours truly into a single parent. Calculate an autistic teen who thrives on her routines and add the normal evening tasks of a domestic goddess into the equation and you’ll understand what I mean. I'm not going to lie to you. The juggling wasn’t easy. I won’t miss driving back and forth to the valley twice a night for Syd’s rehearsals (she doesn’t have her driver’s license YET!!!!), but I am thrilled she FINALLY joined drama club and had the incredible experience she did. The camaraderie among cast, crew, and directors was unlike anything she's ever done before at school. Learning how your one part, even if it’s minor, fits into the whole group and functions as one, to create something extraordinary, can't be duplicated by reading a textbook or taking notes in a classroom. It has to be experienced. Two months ago, from the very first few practices, I heard her say, “I don’t see how it’s going to come together. It doesn’t feel like we’re really doing anything.” And then it turned into, “It’s coming together and it’s going to be amazing!” And come together it did.
Elijah, as Mr. Lundie, performs the marriage ceremony between Jeannie and Charlie played by Ariana and DJ.
Over the past few years, our school’s drama club has been turned into a thing of beauty that even Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself would deem praise-worthy. The club found itself in need of a new advisor four years ago. Alice “Ali” Bennett, our district’s Food Services Director, and Tim Brown, one of our high school’s special education teachers, stepped in to take the helm. As explained by Ali, “I remember, it was a June day.  I think school may have just ended or it was at least in the last few days of school.  I was at Athens High School and Beth Schulze, then principal, stopped me and said, ‘Hey, Vina's not doing the play anymore.  Will you direct the play?’  Beth knew I had directed shows for three years at Sayre High School and knew that I was an active member of Winding River  Players.  I said, ‘OK.’  I fell into directing at Sayre in a similar fashion!” Ali brought along with her to the program her fellow Winding Rivers Player member Tim Brown as her co-director. “I had previously roped Tim into performing with the Winding River Players.  He, like many others, was finding a ‘home’ with theatre.  In my typical management style, I told Tim he'd be directing the Athens’ school play with me.  To which he responded, ‘Ok.’” Musical direction for the club is provided by the more than capable music/chorus teacher Lisa Reynolds who, like Tim, was drafted into her role. This came about during their second year of partnership while producing Wonderland. Lisa’s children were in the musical. Ali says, “The constant nagging must have worked, because Lisa joined our ranks.  What followed was the birth of a true musical production at AHS; a first for Lisa and a first for me.  Lisa had never been in a show or directed a show.” What a beautiful collaboration this birth has been! The members of ASAG have given their directors nicknames to loosen formalities while not compromising on school protocol. Ali is called “Shoe” for Schue, a brief form, so to speak, of Mr. Schuester from the Fox Television series Glee. Tim is called T-Bone and Lisa is referred to as Mrs. R “since another nickname hasn’t yet stuck.” 
Pulling musicians together from both AHS and
other local high schools, as well as regional
orchestra programs, to form an exceptional orchestra pit. 

As a little backstory, the former director, Vina Miller, one of our district’s devoted music/chorus teachers, had been at the helm of the program for many years. A job she managed to successfully do alone. That meant she was solely responsible for coordinating the music, vocals coaching, acting coaching, as well as the normal set and costume direction involved. It was quite the undertaking and had to be exhausting. As our school district began feeling the financial strain of both State and Federal budget cuts, positions were eliminated and teachers moved to different buildings. Vina was transferred to one of the outer-lying schools, which took her further away from the high school where the club’s base was, and, understandably, she resigned.
“My first year, in the fall of 2011, I changed the name of the program to Athens Student Actors' Guild.  No clue where that came from, but I have never liked the name ‘Drama Club.’  It seems to invite, well, drama!  We thus became ASAG.  Another goal was for ASAG to become a known entity.  We're getting there!” Ali explains. Over the past four years, the program has produced Bedside Manor, Wonderland, Footloose, and this year’s Brigadoon.
Music/Chorus teacher Lisa Reynolds sees her vision
of producing Brigadoon coming to life. Bill, a junior at
AHS, plays the bagpipes and was a hit in the show!

(Photo courtesy of Ali Bennett)
When Syd initially told me they were doing Brigadoon, the choice didn’t hold much appeal with me. I think I may have even groaned a little just because my mind had filed it away as one of those “dusty old musicals” you catch yourself watching as a Sunday afternoon movie because nothing else was on TV. The truth is, I wasn’t overly familiar with the musical and I had to look it up on YouTube to see what songs were in it. Even after viewing the clips, I wasn’t entirely sold on it for a high school musical. The vocal ranges required seemed to be well-beyond high school mastery level. I’ve been to past chorus shows and, I mean, our vocal talent is good, but were they that good?! Lisa Reynolds had faith in her students. Their original plan this year was to do a production of Guys and Dolls, but due to the fact that it is currently involved with a national touring group, ASAG was denied the rights. Ali tells me,Mrs. Reynolds picked Brigadoon. She had been in the (orchestra) pit for the show a couple of times in the past.  It was NOT one that I would have picked.  Out of my comfort zone. How delighted I am that I was wrong.  I learned and grew like the rest of ASAG. We generally try to pick a show for which we know we have the ‘voices’ and acting abilities, and numbers of students.” As a parent and a spectator, all I can say is THANK YOU, Mrs. Reynolds, for your faith and vision! The students of ASAG proved they were equally up for the task of performing the vocally challenging Brigadoon. And then some. How do you know a production was good? When it goes home with you!!! I can’t stop humming the tunes from the show! Last night, while filling the sink with dish water, I caught myself singing I’ll Go Home with bonnie Jean complete with cast member DJ’s dance moves and expressions. “Go home! Go home! Go home with bonnie Jean!” It just won’t leave my subconscious. And Brigadoon was wonderful! I'm not saying that as a stage mom. Our family has attended the last six productions and, after last year's Footloose, we didn't think they'd be able to surpass the quality---and yet THEY DID this year. I don't know how they will beat it with next year's show. Seriously. But if Shoe, T-Bone, and Mrs. R are involved, anything is possible. The amount of time these three advisors put into the program comes at nothing short, I am convinced, of costing them great personal sacrifice, although we’ll never hear them complain about it. They do it for their students.
L to R: Michaela, Ryan, DJ, Katie, and Jared
"Fiona and Tommy" selfie with Michaela and Ryan.

(Photo courtesy of Michaela Elliott)
I would like to take this opportunity to gush about the talent we have at our high school. Michaela and Ryan played leads Fiona and Tommy. Both of them have vocal ranges that force you to pinch yourself because you think you are dreaming—they can’t possibly be high school students!? Surely you’re sitting at a show in some Broadway theatre!? When I had checked the show out on YouTube, I said to Syd in disbelief, “There’s no way your castmates are going to hit those notes and sustain them.” And she argued back, “Yes. They. Will. Wait until you hear them.” When Michaela and Ryan broke into Heather on the Hill, it moved me to tears. It was that beautiful. This is coming from the self-declared Numero Uno fan of Luciano Pavarotti who planned her vacation around the FIFA World Cup Three Tenors Concert on July 16, 1994 from Dodgers Stadium—I wasn’t there in person, but planted in front of my TV with the surround sound blasting and champagne flowing! From the same person who saw Michael Crawford perform Gesthamne live in Philly at the Mann Music Center and, at the time, declared, “Surely I have died because I’m in heaven!” I don’t extend music-related compliments willy-nilly. It’s serious freaking business. I am one of those individuals who can’t sing a note or play an instrument, but, gosh darn it, I can recognize talent when I hear it. Supporting cast members DJ and Ariana, last year’s stellar (Did I mention stellar?) leads, Ren and Ariel, in Footloose, played Charlie and Jeannie. DJ, with his good-natured style, exudes stage confidence and is always quick to win over an audience and Ariana wowed as the sweet blushing bride. Their performance was bittersweet since both of them are seniors and this would be their last ASAG production. My family and I have watched them grow up together on stage. Jared and Katie played Jeff and Meg and rounded out the rest of the larger cast roles. Jared proved last year that he had the comedic timing of a professional actor and only built on to his reputation this year to prove last year’s performance, as Ren McCormack’s sidekick Willard, wasn’t a happy accident. Katie, a budding sophomore, brings vocals laced with heart and charisma for a true stage presence. Her love of everything Broadway shines through. As the town’s overly “friendly” lass, Meg, she had the audience stirred up into a jovial frenzy during her rendition of The Love of My Life when she ingeniously resorted to bringing the orchestra pit’s unknowing male clarinetist into the act as one of her past loves. Upwards of twenty-five students had smaller parts or filled in as townspeople. They sang, they danced, they kicked ass. Syd was one of Jeannie’s girls. She had a solo line to sing during the song Vendor Calls.
L to R: My mom, Syd, Samantha, and Cameron
hanging out "backstage."
Being Syd’s supportive family, we attended all three performances. Our friends and family came out to show their support as well and left at the end delivering raving reviews—even from my musical-hating brother and father who each stated how overly impressed they were by our school’s talent and the overall production of the musical. That’s right, readers, my NASCAR-loving, redneck family members loved ASAG’s Brigadoon! My brother even stated that he wished he’d gone to see it a second time! The greatest moment for me was seeing my mom "backstage" before the show with her granddaughter—who was wearing the costume my mom made for her in just two days! She would do anything for her Syd.
Syd and company at the Brigadoon cast after-party hosted
by Chumpy's Pizzeria
I’ve heard people complain about weighing our children down with too many activities. There have even been studies about it. I think it’s about knowing what each individual child can do. Give your child the opportunity to participate in athletics and arts and causes, but be a parent and monitor them. If you know your child, you can tell when they have too much on their plate and you help them choose what needs to go from their schedule. Syd’s extracurricular time hasn’t been spent at the school, but at the horse barn and is equally time-consuming and requires dedication. She started riding and showing at age eleven. That was when my husband and I witnessed the greatest transformation in her. She turned from this lackadaisical kid and became this organized, self-motivated, and responsible teen. Think about it. In order for her to afford her hobby, she had to work at the horse farm. She was accountable for grooming and exercising show horses insured for $75,000 to $150,000! Not something one is put in charge of doing if they are irresponsible. These traits carried over to her student life as well. As a student, she became involved in what I call “community enriching organizations” like: SADD, Red Cross Club, Interact, Student Counsel, and Honor Society where she participated in planning school-wide activities and was also encouraged to perform community service. Combine those activity skills with what is taught by certain outstanding teachers, who not only educate, but inspire their students to achieve to the best of their abilities, and our daughter became a positive statistic in the argument about children in activities.
I asked Ali what her goal was for ASAG and this is what she said, “My goal, was and still is, for the students to have fun.  I love theatre and think that others should, too!  There is an actor in many of us, waiting for someone to set it free. Hmmm. My goals remain for students to have fun; stepping out of their comfort zones, for students to experience the thrill of being on-stage, for students to gain confidence in their abilities, and for students to feel part of something special.” Sounds like skills to learn for life, does it not? Another check mark in the positive argument column for children and activities.
L to R: Grace, Syd, and Erin. Poor Grace was a trooper
and had to perform on crutches!
As stated earlier, State and Federal budget cuts are straining our public education finances. Schools everywhere are experiencing it. The first to feel the squeeze are the arts and humanities programs. Budgets get slashed or cut entirely. Programs like ASAG have to buy the rights to perform musicals or plays. Those rights are not cheap. Props, costumes, and equipment come out of the budget as well—when there is a budget. Admission price to the production goes into an expense account to fund things. Many times, advisors pay out of pocket or members pay for their individual needs. Our district is in desperate need of a new sound system and mics. In fact, as mics died during Brigadoon, our district IT guru who oversees the control room technology, Gary Seifert, used his connections through churches to borrow mic sets to get ASAG through the weekend’s performances.  Gary told me that quality individual mics, transmitters, and receivers cost around $2,000 a set. For our school’s productions, we would need ten sets. You do the math. That’s a lot of smackers. Money for that is going to have to come from outside sources. School-based fundraising projects wouldn’t be feasible. Running the normal two fundraising events a school year, by selling goods from out of a catalog, would take years to accomplish with, on average, fifty student members participating. At best, fundraising programs only offer a 30-35% return in total sale monies raised. Even though Syd is graduating this year, my goal, as a parent, is to start writing letters to local businesses soliciting monetary donations to support ASAG. These donations would be tax deductible for the businesses so it’s a win-win situation for all involved. I’m determined to find a way to fund our gifted and dedicated ASAG program!! After all, the show must go on!  
The seniors from the cast of Brigadoon: L to R Stephanie, Nadia, Eli, Austin, Allie, DJ, Director Ali "Shoe" Bennett, Ryan, Kyle, Amelia, and Sydney.
(Photo courtesy of Ali Bennett)


  1. Love it. Wish I'd been able to come out to see this, I adore Sydney <3

    1. They were incredible! Every one of them. Now, to get some mic sets for the program!!! (CPS)