Firehouse Theatre Project: Full House

Now in its 30th year, the Firehouse Theatre Project (FTP) is a nucleus for the creative aspirations of the Richmond, VA, community and a beacon for continuous artistic expression. From humble but ambitious beginnings in 1993, the former fire station now houses three theatre companies, two dance companies, and a Fringe program that offers “place, space, and infrastructure to Richmond's independent artists,” according to Nathaniel Shaw, FTP’s Producing Artistic Director.

Created as a locus for “edgy theatre” in what was then an iffy area part of town, the original founders Carol Piersol, Harry Kollatz Jr., Janet Wilson, Bill Gordon, and Anna Senechal Johnson envisioned premieres of contemporary American playwrights’ work. Thanks to their efforts, said Shaw, “If you are in and around Richmond and you have an appetite for new ideas, new voices, and new content, Firehouse has consistently been the community’s home to discover contemporary work and have a unique theatrical experience.”

One such experience was the memorable “Julie, Monster: A Queer Baroque Opera” (2021). Written by Raphael and Niccolo Seligmann, the opera was a collaboration between FTP and RVA Baroque, a community period instrument ensemble. It is a favorite of FTP’s Technical Director / Production Coordinator Emily Vial, who recalled that the production “was an enormous undertaking, with an 18-person cast, two months of rehearsals, a beautifully designed set that emulated a stone mausoleum with gold-trimmed Baroque architectural accents, and a live six-piece band that blended original electronic music with classic French Baroque chamber music.” 

This year has been particularly eventful. In 2023, Joel Bassin, who had served as Producing Artist Director since 2015, retired, passing the baton to Nathaniel Shaw, founder of The New Theatre and now Bassin’s successor. “Once the possibility of succession was on the table, we examined the pros and cons of consolidation between Firehouse and The New Theatre (TNT) and, given the considerable mission overlap, brought the two organizations together. Dr. Bassin and I worked alongside each other for the first half of 2023.”

In addition to TNT and FTP, a third theatre company, 5th Wave, is in residence. The latter was formed by the FTP’s founding Artistic Director, Carol Piersol, who passed away in 2023 from brain cancer. “Since I joined the team, we have honored our history by naming the stage after founding Artistic Director Carol Piersol. Doing this reconnected us to past Firehouse artists.”

Firehouse has unusually devoted fans, learned Kaghen Miller, who is the LUDUS senior account executive in charge of FTP. “What I found unique from other LUDUS users was that FTP offers an unlimited subscription model. Much like Netflix for live theatre, a subscription at Firehouse Theatre gives you open access to as many performances as you'd like. Specifically, with their series where a script is being workshopped, patrons have the opportunity to experience the work through its growth.”

“A big shout-out to Kaghen,” said Shaw, “who held our hand through the onboarding process, and continues to be an incredible resource!” Shaw also extolled LUDUS as a great addition to Firehouse: “It has made it so much easier for patrons, especially our members, to manage their own ticket-buying experience, and it has freed up staff-time. Additionally, the ability to view patron and donor data has made targeted outreach much easier and faster.”

LUDUS ticketing benefits extend to Fringe program participants, who, as FTP Director of Communications Amber Martinez noted, may not have “an artistic home of their own, and we provide that for them in addition to some tech and design elements they may need access to as well. What makes Firehouse so special,” she observed, “is that we provide a space for artists to perform, take risks, and have an audience.”

And that space is about to get better, noted Shaw. “We have made a major investment in our production capabilities by switching to greener, more efficient LED technology and adding 30 new LED lighting fixtures; purchasing two ultra-short throw digital projectors, and upgrading our audio package with a new soundboard and on-stage speakers for more localized design. We have made some small but meaningful upgrades to the lobby and performance space. We have also increased our investment in production values and increased artist compensation.”

These improvements can be made thanks to community partners and individuals who realize the importance of live theatre. “Because of Dr. Bassin's leadership, I'm inheriting stewardship when Firehouse is in a strong financial position,” noted Shaw. Sadly, however, “contributed support, whether government, foundation, corporate, or individual, has not kept up with the rate of inflation over the last several decades. We have to realize that a healthy and thriving arts sector is reliant on everyone who cares about it participating in it. If you take it for granted, you may blink, and it may be gone.”

ARIZONA THESPIANS: ARTS FOR EVERYBODY

A little competition may be a good thing. But forward-thinking arts organizations like Arizona Thespians recognize personal and professional development are ill-served by “win or go home” sports-inspired rankings. Instead, the educators, students, and professionals who comprise Arizona Thespians rely on a more inclusive Festival model, offering non-competitive ratings (as opposed to rankings) that can still advance participating regional schools into statewide, national, and even international showcases. 

Since its inception in the 1970s, Arizona Thespians has provided arts enrichment to more than 70,000 adolescents and thousands of educators. Its program, aided by a robust supply of alums and volunteers, is recognized as a Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO) in stagecraft.

While being a “Region I Chapter affiliated with the International Thespian Society and the Educational Theatre Association” may sound a little starchy on paper, in practice, according to Joe-Benjamin Mauricio, Alum Coordinator for Arizona Thespians, it is anything but. “The best way to describe the world of AT would be ‘Controlled Chaos,’ in the best way,” he said. “We see the love and passion for the arts flowing out of the teachers and directors, and they share the love with any and all coming to our events.”

"Arizona Thespian State Festival is such a positive experience, from the amazingly helpful and kind alums that help everyone at the start to the constant positivity from the leaders,” said Kevin Schneider, Ludus Co-Founder. “And the students are so respectful and energetic, a great combo!” he added.

As Arizona Thespians’ exclusive ticket sales partner, Ludus appreciates being able to give back to Arizona’s arts community. "The fact that we have this opportunity to support the Arizona Thespians through our partnership program,” said Schneider, “is a point of pride." Jenell Riordan, Arizona Thespians Chapter Director, agreed: “Our partnership has been great. What you are able to contribute will go towards our scholarship fund.”

Below, Arizona Thespians’ Riordan shares with Ludus’ Schneider her witnessing the growth of the AT program, the impact the organization has on the lives of Arizonans, and its vision going forward:

Schneider, Ludus: How did you personally get involved with AT? 

Riordan, Arizona Thespians (AT): I have been with the organization since 1998. I am currently the chapter director. But my involvement started before I was even a board member. The school where I was working as an assistant technical director hosted the annual Arizona Thespian Festival in 1992. 

Ludus: Tell us about the team of directors/educators that work with you. 

AT: We have approximately 2,600 inducted Thespians. That includes Junior Thespians at the middle school level and 130 adult members who include troupe directors, professional members, and emeritus members. 

Joe Benjamin Mauricio oversees our Alum Board, all former high school Thespians who help with all our events. Honestly, they play an integral part - not just volunteers who help. 

At 30 members, the Arizona Thespian State Board is one of the few states with a sizable board. Most are educators/directors, but we also have community members who offer great insights into our operations. And we have student State Thespian Officers (STOs), although those are not on the board.

Ludus: How has Arizona Thespians grown during your tenure? 

AT: Since I started, AT has more than doubled attendance for our State Festival. We’ve gone from holding that annual event at a high school to holding it at a convention center. We’ve also divided the state into five regions for regional festivals because student involvement has increased over the years.

Ludus: Sounds like a great “problem” to have! What kind of event opportunities are there for the members? 

AT: Our current Festivals include five regional events leading to our annual statewide event. Then there are our three-day, student-centered Leadership Camp, a yearly event that just finished July 13, and our Troupe Director Summit, a teacher-centered event to help provide professional development hours.

Ludus: Your Leadership Camp is pretty cool, BTW. Zachary Collins, Ludus’ CEO & Co-Founder, told me, "The summer Leadership Camp is such a well-designed and executed event; it is no wonder Arizona has such incredible student leaders and alums. The leadership from adults to students is exceptional!" 

AT: Thanks! That all goes back to creating strong events for students to participate in - not just the "competition" part but the workshops, training, and leadership opportunities we offer. The Arizona Thespian team is driven to make all events successful for teachers and students. They are very passionate about theatre education, which shows in our events. And we consistently evaluate how we can do things better.

SIDEBAR: Trust Issues

“Regarding competition, things have changed at AT - for the better! As time goes on, we see customary competition transitioning to a healthy competition that intertwines the teaching and learning aspects of how to perfect your craft. Hopefully to pursue a future arts career, whether that be on-stage acting or backstage tech jobs!

“My favorite moment was working at our student-run Leadership Camp. I was working with a specific school running a workshop for ‘Troupe Trust’ and assisting with their exercises one-on-one. The workshop was created to instill trust in each member, who can then take those experiences back to their school. After the workshop, a student said, ‘I wanted to thank you for that. I am walking away from this with a newfound trust for people I did not know I could have for them.’ After that, I was able to see how the work we do actually helps people.”

Joe-Benjamin Mauricio, Alum Coordinator for Arizona Thespians

Ludus: We would love to hear about the students and how your program serves the students of Arizona. 

AT: As an arts education organization, we help students learn to manage behavior, create a positive self-image, and develop such skills as collaboration and communication. How do we know we’ve done a good job? Well, if I or any board members are out and happen to be wearing an Arizona Thespian shirt or jacket, we’ve had people stop us and tell us how they were a Thespian and how theatre helped them get through high school or helped them become confident as they got older. 

Ludus: How were you impacted by the pandemic? Has COVID had any long-lasting effects on your organization?

AT: Our chapter was very fortunate to come out of COVID strong. We went into the lockdown financially stable and didn't suffer financial repercussions from canceled events. Which, unfortunately, did happen to many chapters. 

While we could not hold live events during the year 2020, we were still able to help our membership. We modified our scholarship auditions to be online, so seniors still had that opportunity. We were stable enough to support many troupes with their dues because they had lost so much money when they had to cancel productions. We also started to offer a grant for troupes that faced financial hardship due to COVID to attend our Leadership Camp.

SIDEBAR: Coming Back from COVID

“Because I started as a Student Thespian Officer (STO) on the heels of the pandemic, we had to rework everything we’d [done before] to fit the parameters of government regulation and satisfy protocols. But by doing so, we’ve adapted to accommodate even more Thespians who are starting to get involved in our organization. Coming out of COVID, people want to be involved in the arts and other creative pursuits because we missed out on so much for so long. It’s been really awesome to watch our organization grow.”

-Anna Fountain, AT graduate, former STO

Ludus: What’s on the horizon for Arizona Thespians?

AT: “This is new for Arizona: The first-ever Arizona Thespians Adaptive Theatre Festival, focused on giving ALL students an opportunity to do theatre. 

Many schools [around the country] are starting to have Adaptive/Unified Theatre classes, where special needs students work with their general education peers. It is a benefit for students all around. I don’t know if other states are doing a Festival geared toward students with special needs. As an organization, we see a need for theatre arts to be available to these students. Workshops will focus on musical theatre, puppetry, and character development.

Join the Arizona Thespians at their State Festival on November 10 & 11, 2023, at Phoenix Convention Center.

MATER DEI High School PERFORMING ARTS Spotlight: A Higher Calling
Life Enriching Experiences

Mater Dei High School, based in Santa Ana, CA, has a strong performing arts program that offers its students opportunities to explore and develop their musical, dance, and theatrical talents. But it also has a higher calling: to impact the lives of the local community with the life-enriching experience of the arts. “All our programs do community outreach service throughout the year,” explained Marisa Winch, Mater Dei’s Coordinator of Performing Arts Operations and Events. “They feature elementary school band and choir programs, trips to a local U.S. Marine base to provide entertainment and dance classes to families on base, and a children’s theatre tour to local elementary schools.” As stated in the Overview of the Arts for Mater Dei, their vision is to “empower ambassadors of change through artistic expression.” And changing lives is what they continue to do every day.

The breadth of the program serves as a magnet for aspiring performers. Maxwell Beckman, currently a junior, transferred to Mater Dei in his sophomore year, feeling his former school had “many arts programs established but no emphasis on them at all because of the school's relatively small size and its focus on sports.” Beckman is now involved in the Instrumental Music/Band/Theatre and Choir programs. His favorite theatre production so far has been the musical, Once on This Island by Lynn Ahrens.

Ave Maria

And there is another advantage to Mater Dei’s Arts Program: As a Roman Catholic co-educational college preparatory school, certain exclusive one-of-a-kind performing venues are available to its hard-working and talented choirs. We’re talking about the Vatican.

For Jadyn Coulter, Mater Dei High School Class of 2023, traveling to Rome to sing at St. Peter’s Basilica and on the steps outside the Sistine Chapel was unforgettable. “We sang ‘Ave Maria’ in the stairwell outside of the Sistine Chapel,” Coulter remembered, “and everybody was so moved by the space and the experience. It was so full of pure emotion and one of our most passionate and soul-bearing performances of that song.”

The Grotto

Mater Dei also has its own spectacular venue: Mary’s Grotto, part of the school grounds that in 1990 were transformed into a parklike setting. It is where Shakespeare in the Grotto is performed each year, and now Materpalooza and Coffeehouse, a two-week-long festival inspired by Mater Dei’s Guitar and Vocal programs.

Amazing Variety of Performing Arts Programs

Winch, who has been in her position at Mater Dei for the past five years, is also a 1996 graduate (“I was in the band all four years and participated in our Senior Musical”), is one of more than 25 faculty staff who are dedicated to Mater Dei’s performing arts department. “I get the honor and privilege to work with talented student artists from all four of our Performing Arts programs!” she enthused.

In a typical year, Mater Dei stages about 13 mainstage performances, with around ten other performances by smaller groups/ensembles. Productions are drawn from Choral & Vocal Music, which includes six ensembles, four a capella groups, and a Vocal Conservatory program; the Dance program, which includes Dance Conservatory, Hip Hop, Song, and Dance electives; instrumental bands that include Marching, Pep Band, Jazz, and more; and Theatre.

Backstage and Front of House

Mater Dei students also get immersed in every aspect of its productions: onstage as performers, backstage as crew, working front-of-house, and marketing. They also act as mentors. Coulter, who sang in the Junior High Honor Choir (drawn from local junior high students) before arriving at Mater Dei, now works with the younger students: “At our recent Spring Concert. I was able to help the Junior High Honor Choir with their set, and it was such a full circle moment for me.”

It can even be possible to create new curricula, as alumna Ruby Mejia did with her Backstage Pass Podcast. “I created the podcast for the performing arts department,” she remembered. “I was able to work with my best friends and hear so many amazing stories of the love and passion that students had. Being able to accomplish that makes me very proud and has to be one of my favorite memories.” 

During Mejia’s sophomore year, the all-school musical was The Addams Family, for which she worked on the publicity team for the first time. “The team and the ensemble truly made this show one of the best experiences. I am very fond of all the memories I made and the work our team did, especially the t-shirts, and commercials we created.”

The Ludus Advantage

One of Coulter’s many jobs at Mater Dei was working the door for events, and it was there that she encountered Ludus. “Using Ludus helped our events run smoothly and helped us get people in the door very quickly,” observed Coulter. And, she added, “It was so nice introducing Ludus to some of the younger Performing Arts members who learned how to use it for future performances and found it as easy to use as I did. I always love greeting people before performances, so whenever I get a chance to work the doors myself, I always have a good time as well. Having Ludus on my phone makes it easy and gives me a great excuse to help out with the tickets at the door, and I get to help everyone get to their seats and access their tickets very easily.”

Ludus’ versatility was key to its selection. When a larger company purchased Mater Dei’s former ticketing vendor, Winch cast about for alternatives. For other schools in this position, she advises, “When looking for a ticketing/fundraising platform, make sure to ask questions to ensure the platform fits your needs, as well as is open to growing with you. And customer service is a MUST!”

Winch ultimately chose Ludus because it was so responsive. Ludus president Kevin Schneider says, “Mater Dei came to Ludus when it was first beginning and has continued to help us grow and improve. Winch’s feedback is invaluable to our success.” For Winch, “The best thing about Ludus is it constantly asks for feedback and works to add features that meet the demands of its clients. This allowed me to evolve how I use the system for my patrons.” 

Mater Dei High School Performing Arts continues its tradition of professionalism and excellence into the 2023-34 school year. Make sure to check out their next season at https://mdcoa.ludus.com/

WISDAA: Open to Debate

In 2022, the former Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA) changed its name to Wisconsin Interscholastic Speech and Dramatic Arts Association (WISDAA). The changed name served three purposes: first, to reflect the breadth of WISDAA’s offerings, which now include film; and second, to signal its expanded mission to middle school students; and finally, to avoid awkward conversations about criminal investigations, with which the word “forensic” (once meaning “belonging to, used in, or suitable to public discussion and debate”) is now inextricably associated. According to Adam Jacobi, WISDAA’s Executive Director, the new name results from “strategic planning and appraisal of our identity, purpose, vision, and values.”

One of the reasons I chose WISDAA as the first of our Partner Spotlights is the fact they are not afraid to make bold changes. Their work with diversity and inclusivity and their success during the COVID years is admirable. I reached out to Adam Jacobi, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the fields of communication, theatre education, public relations, and government affairs, to learn more about WISDAA’s newly expressed mission. We also asked several alumni what they had gotten from the program; their answers are in the sidebars.

-Kevin Schneider, Co-founder/President, Ludus

Kevin Schneider: What is the mission of the newly renamed WISDAA?

Adam Jacobi: To provide an inclusive platform so that all middle and high school students can enhance and refine their communication skills; to foster creativity, and to share perspectives. Our vision is a future where all students may participate in speech, debate, theatre, and film contests in a safe and supportive environment to express their authentic selves and to grow from constructive feedback.

Schneider: How did you personally get involved with WISDAA?

Jacobi: I participated as a student in the early 1990s in WISDAA (then WHSFA) middle and high school speech festivals at my alma mater Rufus King High School. It was an inner-city school with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, of which I'm a product and for which I was a former teacher. 

I began my speech and debate coaching career during the 1997-98 school year. In 2001, I was trained to facilitate instruction in our high school speech adjudicator (judge) certification program, and in 2003, I became the organization's contracted website administrator. In 2014, I was hired as the full-time executive director.

Schneider: How has WISDAA changed since you’ve been there?

Jacobi: One of the top reasons for WISDAA’s success is its non-competitive philosophy. Having really immersed myself in the WISDAA community, there's just a different "vibe" at our contests that is far more mutually supportive and lacking in the anxiety-inducing facets of competition. That is not to say we aren't rigorous; there are various degrees of merit earned by schools and students, and so while no child leaves empty-handed, it is far more than a mere "participation trophy." This approach makes our activities far more accessible to schools with fewer resources and time to participate in the weekly grind of tournaments to hone themselves against others. 

For the competitive schools who also still do WISDAA, it allows them to really focus on skill development through our insightful rubrics that we continue to tweak and weigh against learning standards. 

FOCUS: Developing Character

‘WISDAA provides a great balance of coaching and self-discovery. A lasting memory for me is when I created my own Solo Humorous Acting piece in high school. I don’t remember the name of the piece but it was about a crazy woman who was hired to read and entertain in kindergarten class. I was able to switch from a sweet and loving volunteer to a delirious conspiracy theorist in seconds. Seeing the judges laugh, smack the table, and quickly write down notes was soooo satisfying. I found my “thing.”

“My forensic coach, Mr. Powell, was so encouraging. While I was practicing, he told me I had a very expressive face and that my eyes lit up on certain words during my performance. He told me to lean into that - that acting is expressed with everything you have. Someone in class had told me I had “big eyes” so I was very self-conscious about it. Mr. Powell unknowingly corrected something I wanted to minimize. I feel like I stood up straight after he told me that.”

Marquayla Ellison, Alumna (Vincent HS), community leader / proprietor of Ellastic Designs

Schneider: What changes have you effected at WISDAA?

Jacobi: I believe my legacy will be WISDAA’s technology. In 2015-16, I moved our previously in-person speech training clinics to a hybrid format that included two hours of online asynchronous tutorials about the rules and other expository information to ensure consistency in delivery of that information. This was supplemented by a 2.5-hour in-person practicum workshop focusing exclusively on practicing evaluation. The test for certification went from being a 50-question multiple choice test about the rules to an authentic assessment that entails writing an evaluation of a student performance (on video).  

I also partnered with SpeechWire, which has revolutionized how we track participation data, ensure compliance with various legal imperatives, and facilitate virtual participation. Working with Speechwire has allowed us to streamline awards distribution at the State Speech Festival that, with 300+ schools with thousands of students participating across four-time slots, is a feat of engineering! 

Schneider: Speaking of technology, you’re also a highly esteemed partner of Ludus! How has this experience been?

Jacobi: Ludus has been an amazing partner! Primarily, Ludus streamlines much of the work that goes into ticketing and marketing for performing arts organizations (and beyond), which allows educators producing public performances to focus on rehearsal and teaching young people. Ludus' generous state association support of a share of profits from member schools' sales of tickets (the modest ticketing fee passed along to patrons) has been a great source of "passive income."

In addition to using technology to streamline our programming and make it more accessible, I'm really proud of adding accessibility requests to our registration processes, about seven years ago. Because our programs are noncompetitive, practically any accommodation or modification needed is honored, because it doesn't impact others. I have heard countless anecdotes from coaches and adjudicators about how they appreciate how this uplifts students and doesn't single them out.

Schneider: How did COVID affect WISDAA’s programming?

Jacobi: Pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID? Numbers are in flux. Pre-COVID, we had 2,200+ students from 80+ schools participate in our theatre season; 2,000+ students from 150+ schools participate in middle level speech; and 5,000 students from 350 schools participate in high school speech. Post-COVID, we've seen some schools leave, almost exclusively due to staffing changes, yet several new schools have joined or returned after decades of hiatus. Overall, though, student counts across the board are about half pre-COVID numbers.

With all the capacity we built for virtual participation during COVID, offering those options has become a mainstay to ensure flexibility. We're pleased that the numbers of virtual participants are declining overall, but it also saved contests last year due to weather cancellations and actually gives fully online schools a much better logistical pathway for participation, whereas figuring that out pre-COVID was a challenge.

Schneider: But you already had some of the program online.

Jacobi: COVID certainly played a role (if you'll excuse the theatre pun) by forcing us to move more workshops online. This has allowed us to have them team-taught, giving far more flexibility to individuals seeking certification. 

Since COVID, we have added entirely online courses for one-act play and middle level speech adjudicator certification. I'm optimistic about using virtual platforms to connect interested schools, and we have some initiatives to rebuild debate participation.

Schneider: In a normal year, how many events are in a season? What kind are they?

Jacobi: One-act play season starts in early October with 12 regional district festivals (one split between two sites on opposite ends of the district); those advance to five sectional festivals that, in turn, advance to the State Festival the weekend before Thanksgiving. 

The State Festival is not just the one-act play contest, however; we have workshops for students and teachers, a vending expo, full-length showcase play and musical, college auditions, Tech Challenge, and Thespys - it's a combination of a state activity association one-act play contest, a Thespian festival, and a college-run high school theatre festival (though we allow middle level schools to participate if they wish). Middle level speech starts in January with about 20 regional "Level 1" festivals, followed by about 12 "Level 2" festivals in mid-February through mid-March. High school speech starts in February with 50+ regional sub-district festivals, advancing to 14 district festivals in March, which advance to the State Speech Festival Final Round in April. All of these events have a statewide virtual option at each level (including the State Festival) in which schools may participate, which has expanded accessibility and flexibility, particularly for rural schools.

Our pilot/development activities are currently exclusively virtual. Debate has a series of open contests throughout the year, which culminate with a State Debate Festival alongside the State Speech Festival. Film has a single-submission festival held in late spring. 

Schneider: To what degree do competitions and festivals intersect?

Jacobi: When I started coaching in the late 1990s, there were few schools who participated in those organizations that also didn't do WISDAA. Interestingly, every single NSDA National Champion student from Wisconsin to-date has also participated in WISDAA activities. That also applies to some of the most celebrated Thespian troupes in our state.

As a coach, I was driven for accolades on behalf of my students, which is why I saw the value in participating in both types of contests and associations. We have increased collaboration considerably, but there is room for improvement. In addition to WISDAA offering speech and debate festivals, there is also a coach-operated organization for speech and for debate. 

Over time, mostly to streamline coaching and team time commitments, many schools left WISDAA for other associations. This makes it more challenging to run contests and forces more vast geographic regions in some areas, adding more burden in time and transportation. We are seeing this hastened by the current teacher/coach shortage and inflation.

FOCUS: Long-term Rewards

“I went to a small, rural high school in a town of roughly 6,000, on a good year. I never once felt like my small school was at a disadvantage, or that we were limited by being such a small school. There were even smaller schools participating in WISDAA events, and I think that’s the beauty of this program: fostering a love for performance and speech in communities that might otherwise never have that exposure.

“I used to place immense value on external validation. Don’t get me wrong– accolades, awards, and trophies are nice, but they’re also fleeting. When I started succeeding in debate, I wasn’t always kind. I thought the goal was to win the round and I didn’t pay attention to how I spoke. This strategy worked in the short-term, but it did nothing to help my reputation nor did it win me any brownie points in civility. I remember my coach having separate conversations with my partner and me. 

“It was an uncomfortable moment, and I was embarrassed that I had been acting in a way that didn’t line up with who I thought I was. I worked to change my debate style, and started to focus on the core of each round: conversation and viewpoints. There were still times I got heated, of course, but knowing my debate coach cared that much about his students getting actual value out of an after-school activity really meant the world.

“Once I realized the most rewarding aspects of speech, debate, and acting were how they made me feel, I started to appreciate my involvement so much more.”

Dakota Marlega, Alumna (Waupaca HS)

Schneider: Does WISDAA have a dedicated team of supporters?

Jacobi: Yes! There are district and section chairs, as well as university professors, who serve as advisors for each of our activities. Collectively, they are also the board of directors to which I report, and I can't say enough about what a loving, compassionate, professional, and supportive group of human beings these leaders are.

When I hear stories of what our alumni do, and the difference they're making, it reminds me of the scope and scale of what we do at WISDAA. And, because our programs aren't competitive, we pride ourselves in providing a safe space for students to be vulnerable in expressing themselves authentically and supporting their growth in a meaningful manner.

FOCUS: Giving Back

“I participated in high school and now respond and do workshops plus help with some clerical things for the State Theater Festival. I tell Adam that whatever he needs me for, I'll do. It's great to be able to give back.

“We've been able to rely on festival seasons for decades. The core things haven't changed - we still have many of the same speech categories and the One Act Festival is still an amazing experience. It's a festival - not a contest. Shows are reviewed against a standard of excellence rather than each school competing against each other. That means everyone can earn the top awards for their hard work rather than a well funded school beating out one that does car washes to help pay for their shows.

“The best changes have been the enhanced availability for students to participate via the online options, and we've added a film festival.”

Kristi Ross-Clausen, Alumna (Tomahawk HS) and Faculty of Communication and Performing Arts at Madison College

Jacobi: I know the primary beneficiaries of our programs are students, but I also realize that advisors - coaches/directors - are our primary constituency with whom we communicate to facilitate student participation. When I take a moment and reflect on the amazing people and organizations I've been privileged to engage with, they all share the same core values and passions for education, the arts, and fostering growth in young people. So, the more we support our advisors and streamline processes for them, the more we can successfully serve students.

Schneider: Looking toward the future, are any exciting things planned for WISDAA?

Jacobi: Film Festival 2023. During our second pilot film season, the contest will be held entirely online. No qualification process is required to enter the State Film Festival; it’s an open contest for any school that is a member - or becomes a member - of WISDAA.

I see our activities as pathways for students to build confidence and self-sufficiency in their lives post-high school. I'm excited to expand our debate and film programs, as well as to rebuild speech and theatre programs in schools that have lost them. It will be a lot of work, but it's so important to reach as many young people as we can.

UINTAH HIGH SCHOOL: “More Than You’ll Ever Know”

Few audience members are aware, as they watch a performance come alive before their eyes, how much they have been saved the trouble of bringing it to life. As Chris Piner, teacher at Uintah High School and director of Uintah Theatre, puts it, “We think a lot more about the stories we tell than you will ever know. We study character and story and have thought provoking conversations about every script. We scrutinize every line and word and we make decisions on how best to proceed. That is rehearsal and you never get to see it.”

Although the current school building was built in 1986, Piner described Uintah’s origins as dating back to the late 1800s. It only became formally structured in 1925. “The school itself is in rural northeastern Utah in a geographical basin and near the reservation lands of the Ute Tribe, thus the name of the school and theatre.” While there had been a long history of theatre, the theatre program gained momentum in the 1960s.

A graduate of Utah State University, Piner began assisting Coach and Director Kevin Dickson in 2002 before fully taking the reins in 2007. “I’ve been the Theatre Director now for 15 years as I am completing my 29th year of teaching. My predecessor held the position for 17 years.

“Due to the school’s remote location,” explained Piner, “the theatre season of the school has long been an artistic centerpiece in the community. That has driven those of us in the creative team to put forth the highest quality within our capabilities. I am always adding technology and improving our resources.”

According to alumnus Brant Johnson, “We often say that, just because we're a smaller city in rural Utah, doesn't mean we need to produce subpar results. Oftentimes, high school productions are cheesy, boring, cringeworthy, but ours really strive to have the show professionally done. We do not look for excuses to produce anything but excellence. Each year, the students are more dedicated, the technology is more advanced, and set design is Broadway standard.”

The first thing students may learn, however, is that the process of performance creation is far from intuitive. Graduate Brian Nelson remembered, “my first year at Uintah, we were performing Beauty and the Beast. I was cast as the bookseller. I think it could have been really easy to just let me say my few lines without really worrying too much about such a small role. Instead, said Nelson, “I had a full character development rehearsal with Mr. Piner.”

Nelson also recalled interacting with a castmate in a way that was “absolutely fake and not genuine at all. I called it acting…. Mr. Piner said something along the lines of ‘You don’t have to pretend to talk to him, he is sitting right in front of you.’ It sounds so silly, but that blew my mind.” Now on a national tour of Cats the Musical, “I am living the dream,” said Nelson. “I would probably take up too much room if I tried to explain all the ways that Uintah prepared me. Uintah IS why I am here today. I will be forever grateful.”

Along with professional scenic, prop, sound, and lighting designs, Uintah is highly rewarded and even more highly regarded for its extraordinary costuming. Under the direction and talent of Linda Cochran and Pat Havey (a visionary daughter/mother team), costumes become an integral part of each production. Piner says "Because of their efforts and meticulous desire for details, we have won multiple awards for the Best Costumes in the state of Utah." The biggest winners are the performers who get the wear these costumes. Audiences continue to be awed by the incredible quality and care that go into each design!

Training for Life

Sara Larsen, a 2019 graduate who has gone on to study Theatre with an emphasis on Acting, credits Uintah for many opportunities she received, such as introducing her to the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre (UFOMT), where she plans to audition. “Uintah gave me an invaluable foundation on which to build my skills.”

But it’s not just the students who feel the value of Uintah. Andie Szekely has been involved with Uintah Theatre as its Spring Musical Lighting Designer since the spring of 2016. “My college friend was going to do the scenic design for the 2016 Uintah Spring musical, The Little Mermaid, and she told me they were also looking for a lighting designer. I got in contact with Chris Piner and decided that I would do the design for them that spring.”

Said Piner, “The Little Mermaid launched a new era of stunning lighting design with master designer Andie Szekely. We’ve never been the same since and I credit her with elevating our aesthetic looks and touches of professional practice and behavior that I hope will never go away.”

Szekely said that it’s Piner who made the difference at Uintah. “He has cultivated an absolutely incredible group of parent volunteers and overall support system. He does his best to get the theatre program known in the community and in the eyes of those who control the future of the program. He has been pushing for his theatre’s success for as long as I’ve known him. And I’ve directly seen his efforts pay off.”

Szekely has now been with Uintah Theatre for seven seasons. She acts as a consultant for lighting gear changes upgrades the program may inquire about, but more surprisingly, she is a professional lighting director with plenty of calls on her time. “Just a week prior to arriving at Uintah this year,” she said, “I was on tour with Andrea Bocelli. Post Uintah, I was contracted to work on the Lionel Richie residency in Las Vegas.” She’s been on-site at the world-famous Coachella Music Festival and its adjacent Stage Coach Music Festival. Though her hometown remains Las Vegas, NV, she’s begun her seventh season on the lighting team of The Santa Fe Opera of Santa Fe, NM, and her second season as its Master Electrician. “After that contract ends in September, I have no idea what’s next. I’m hoping for another tour of some sort and then a return to Uintah in the spring.”

Many of her professional colleagues wonder why Szekely looks forward to returning to Uintah Theatre each year. After all, she noted, “it doesn’t build my resume, it doesn’t secure future work for me, it doesn’t give me professional connections. But not every opportunity needs to check those boxes.”

The Program

“We have a creative team of 15 with additional carpenters, makeup and hair artists, and a team of costume construction depending on the production,” said Piner. “We involve 60-80 students in the musical productions among cast and crew. For our Spring play, we like to keep a little more simple with a cast under 10.” 

There are three productions, with an average of 17 performances among the three. “We often default to a musical revue we call Showtime Uintah for our Fall production. This is a collection of about 18 musical numbers from various titles, including current Broadway.”

With all this activity, it’s perhaps understandable that Uintah didn’t make the leap to a ticketing app until 2015. Even then, it was a bumpy ride: “The company we got started with was bought out by another larger company and pricing compelled us to look around. Ludus actually reached out to me earlier so I took a closer look at that time. My only mistake was not finding Ludus sooner. Ludus understands theatre and high school theatre like no one else. With Ludus, I have the ultra-professional front end for our theatre program and an incredibly efficient team of people working for us to be successful. I am so grateful.”

Uintah High School Theatre continues with another season of excellence in 2022-23 with the musicals Anastasia the musical (October 2022), SpongeBob the musical (March of 2023), and Gilligan’s Island the musical (May 2023). Don't miss out on seeing this remarkable theatre family in performance! Get your tickets at https://uintah.ludus.com/

Bloomfield Hills High School Theatre: A Wideopen Door to Opportunity

A Wideopen Door to Opportunity

Some parents quail when their children announce they want a career in the theatre arts; they envision years of their sons and daughters flipping burgers while awaiting that “big chance.”

But at Bloomfield Hills High School, a robust theatre program that comprises every aspect of theatrical production provides students - and parents - insight into every aspect of a stage vocation. Students learn to appreciate the many choices that lay before them, and parents’ concerns ease by knowing their children are making an informed decision about the future.

“Our program is different,” said Mary Bogrette, Theatre Director, “because students have an opportunity to get real experience, mentored by an adult. Selecting different types of material for performance and class gives everyone an opportunity. The tiered classes, especially International Baccalaureate (IB) Theatre, Acting 3, and Advanced Technology, are game-changers. Before, I felt the program was centered around the productions. Now, I feel that the curriculum is just as important.”

In her fourth year as director, Bogrette has been instrumental in building the current program from scratch. “My first year, there was one acting class and one theatre production class offered each term.” Since then, “I have expanded the program and created a new curriculum, so I am currently teaching theatre (acting/technical theatre/IB Theatre) full time.” 

“When I was in 8th grade at the Bloomfield Hills Middle School,” remembered Naomi Parr, senior and a co-president of the International Thespian Society (ITS), an Honor Society for theatre students, “the then high school theatre teacher retired. Mary Bogrette, who was the middle school theater teacher at the time, got the job at the high school and moved up with my grade. Because of this, the current seniors have had her for almost eight years, and many of us think of her as a second mom.” 

Student Catherine Recknagel also seems to have grown up in the BHHS Theatre Program. She helped her older sisters with their theatre projects and has been directly involved in the theatre program for four years. “I have served as an ITS Board President, as an actor, and as a technician.”

Catherine’s mother, Nancy, has been with the program even longer. “This is my ninth season with the BHHS Theatre Program,” she said, adding, “My participation includes being a parent volunteer, a parent booster serving as one of the founding members of BHHS Theatre Boosters; vice president, and [currently] president of BHHS Theatre Boosters.”

Three of Nancy’s daughters have gone through the program, but she began volunteering before there were Boosters. “Things got done, but there was no organizing parent group to support the theatre program.” Having Boosters was a major change, as was moving to a new high school building that included a brand-new theatre auditorium.”

Honing the Competitive Edge

All attribute the theatre program’s success to Director Bogrette.“Under our previous drama director,” said Scot Cleaveland, BHHS Tech Director, “We mounted two mainstage productions annually. With our current director, we typically mount six, [which means] more opportunities for the students to perform and create.” 

In turn, Bogrette attributes her success to an early love for theatre. “I knew I wanted to be involved in theatre in second grade. I started in theatre when I was in elementary school, participating in workshops at Avon Players Community Theatre.” She counts Dr. Timothy Lentz, Margie Montross, Kat LaRose, and “the amazing professors and graduate students at MSU and EMU. I have a BA in theatre from MSU. I was the recipient of the Arts and Letters scholarship for four years. My Shakespeare training in London was a game-changer for me.”

Cleaveland, who began in 2013, also built much of his program, including the Tech Theatre Club, the facilities rental program, and the Theatre Production class, from the bottom up. Admitting that his favorite productions are tech-heavy, such as “the 36-foot diameter turntable for Les Miz, aerial silks for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the lighting and rigging for A Fiddler on the Roof…” and, he concluded, “anytime we use Flying by Foy.” 

Surprisingly, it’s the students that make much of it happen. “We are self-contained,” said Cleaveland. “Meaning, other than parent boosters, the students create, build, light and audio-engineer the entire show.” For Parr, IB Theatre was most pertinent. It has,” she said, “revolutionized the way I learn in and out of the auditorium. It was my most fascinating class, in which I studied theorists, World Theatre traditions, and all elements of devising theater.”

For Catherine Racknagel, her favorite productions have been Clue, Fiddler on the Roof, and Into The Woods,” said Catherine. “For Clue, I student-directed. It was my first directing experience and I have so many special memories.” Some of those memories are bittersweet since it was the final show before Covid. 

“In the spring of my junior year,” said Parr, “like most teens in quarantine, I was not thriving mentally. Because of this, I chose not to do the spring musical and wrote an email to my director explaining I didn't have the courage I once did to commit to choices and be a good actor. [But] my director recognized that I needed the theater more than ever, that theatre was exactly the healing community I needed to create an outlet and reignite my passion. She brought me into production as an assistant choreographer, and eventually gave me a role when a fellow cast member was sick.”

Into The Woods was the first in-person show, post-Covid, remembered Catherine. “We put a new twist on things - our costumes and set were ‘steampunk.’” Woods, she said, “was the final show for a lot of my friends who were graduating. So getting to do something on stage with them one last time, especially with a show as important as Into The Woods, was really special.”

Not only does the program offers students a glimpse into what it means to have a stage career, but it also gives them much-needed opportunities to advance, “We try to expose each class to a full slate of shows during their high school career - classic and new musicals, comedies, dramas, one-acts, etc.,” said Cleaveland. For success stories, he points out the students who pursue careers in theatre tech - and the millions of dollars in college scholarship offers. Confirmed Bogrette, “Seniors collectively earned over two million dollars in scholarship offers for theatre this year.”

The Ludus Advantage

Bogrette chose Ludus for its transparency and versatility. “Ludus was very transparent about their fees and they don’t charge fees for tickets unless I am charging fees for tickets. Zack and Kevin came up with many solutions to our problems such as figuring out a way to utilize Ludus for a parent silent auction fundraiser. Ludus also has the donation button and I feel like several patrons have utilized that —and they don’t necessarily have a student in the program.” 

“I truly stand in awe in what our performers and tech students achieve with each show,” said Catherine’s mother, Nancy. “Our directors are the dream team; creative, patient, and caring in their roles as theatre and music educators. So many parents have stepped up to support financially, with donations of goods/services, and other volunteer duties. There is outstanding support from alumni and community members who come back to see shows (and buy tickets). It takes a village to make BHHS Theatre successful, and that is what we have.”

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