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High-School Musical: When Your Drama Teachers Go to School

High School Musical Teachers

Top, from left, Mitch Master, Maureen Sweeney. Bottom, from left, Hilde Harper, Sheryl Amirault, Tom Smith.

In July, about 450 middle and high-school drama teachers from around the country flocked to Times Square for the eighth year of a program put on by Broadway Teachers Workshop, where they learn tips from big names like composer Stephen Schwartz, playwright Marsha Norman, and In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Some of the participants talked about the challenges of directing high-school musicals, and many revealed that their dream production is Wicked. (At a workshop, Schwartz, the megahit's creator, provoked a near frenzy when he announced that the show will be licensed to schools before it leaves Broadway, but then again, who knows when that will be?)

Mitch Master, Frankling Jewish Academy, West Bloomfield, Michigan:

This is your third year at the program. What keeps you coming back?
Kate Grant from Juilliard teaches me mirror games and scene work.
Do your kids think acting exercises are cheesy?
A lot do. I tell them this is what Tom Cruise and Robert De Niro do. That seriouses them up.
What's the best thing you staged last year?
I did Taming of the Shrew with a twist, a Ferris Bueller's Day Off opening to it. Then we added snippets of Billy Joel and the Beatles songs.

Did the Shakespeare purists protest?
I don't have too many of those at my school.
What's your dream production?
I'm dying to do The Producers, but I don't know if my school would love the whole Nazi side. I have a rabbi who looks over my scripts. I just did Brighton Beach Memoirs. Most of the masturbation scene went.

Maureen Sweeney, Highlands, New Jersey:

What was the hardest thing you staged this year?
An eighth-grade Willie Wonka. There were a lot of special effects in there. The chocolate machine was a little hard.
How do you get boys to do theater?
Um. Bribe them? [Laughs] I tell them it's a fun time and it looks good on your college application. But once I get them hooked, they don't leave.
Your dream production?
Wicked. I think Legally Blonde would be adorable, too.
Are you an actor?
I wanted to be. I was in a commercial. I'm SAG-eligible. But I took a different path. I have three children.

Hilde Harper, Toms River, New Jersey:

This is your eighth year at this program. Why?
The same reason people keep going to Mecca and Lourdes. Or sticking a needle in your arm. It feels really good here!
What's the key to getting boys to do plays?
Don't dress them up in something and make them sing something that makes them feel odd. You have to pick a show that opens up a whole new set of neural pathways for them. Theater is very addictive.
Is your drama club a de facto gay support group?
Yes. The kids now are so out they're in. I have more boyfriends come to rehearsals than I have different-sex partners.
Your dream production?
Probably Ragtime. It's historical. You bring in a whole lot of kids.
Did you want to be on Broadway?
Of course, doesn't everybody? But I'm better backstage. I'm a detail person.

Sheryl Amirault, various schools, Ontario, Canada:

What's the key to crashing a school and mounting a show?
I try to direct the same show through the different schools.
What was it last year?
I did High School Musical at a couple of the schools. That's an easy mount because it's present-day.
Is Canada more supportive of theater in schools than the U.S.?
There have been major government cutbacks in the arts. That's why I'm brought in, because the parents want me there. They pay a huge chunk of it.
Is there a Great Canadian Musical?
I can't think of one. It's probably not very good if there is one.

Tom Smith, Easthampton, Massachusetts:

Is your school pro-theater?
No. My job was created because a group evaluated the school about twelve years ago and said it needed a better arts program.
Is theater a cool thing in your school?
We affect a quarter of the student body, either in the shows or working on the musical in shop, art, or set-design class.
What have you gotten out of this program?
Last year there was a fight (stage-combat) class. Last year when we did Kiss Me Kate, with several slaps, I used their system instead of the old-fashioned way, which was just — slap. It was too hard to fake them. A few years ago we did Applause, which is based on All About Eve.
Hm. Is your drama club the de facto gay support group?
To a great extent. The kids do a drag show that's been going on for eight years.
Really? Does anybody have a problem with that?
I haven't heard about it. I keep waiting.
What's your dream production?
The Producers. The first spoken line is an F-bomb, so chances are that's going to get cut. We'll substitute something. Shtup.

Tim Murphy

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