Part of Sarasota’s Booker High School, the program began in the '70s as the state’s first magnet arts program. It started at a time when the civil rights climate was far from perfect. According to Rebecca Abrahamson, VPA Director and herself a Class of ‘92 alumna, “In the late 1960s, the county mandated integration, forcing bussing out of neighborhoods as a way to desegregate schools.” Tempers ran high, and Booker High School, which was named after Emma E. Booker, “an educator and, in her own right, civil rights activist,” was closed due to unrest. “Then superintendent Gerald Strickland decided to put an arts magnet program at the school to attract students from all around Sarasota and to foster organic integration.”
Today the Booker VPA draws and educates talented students across a multimedia spectrum of dance, music, theatre, fine arts, film, and digital animation. Currently, the program includes 340 students in our program, about 260 of whom have a concentration in the performing arts (vs. the visual arts). “Our program is a competitive, audition-based program,” said Abrahamson. “Many of our students come from low-income households (the school’s population living in poverty is more than 70 percent). We think of the program as a safety net for our students, a place where they all feel welcomed and like they belong.”
Abrahamson and a colleague, Nick Jones (Class 2010, and Production Manager), are returning graduates. “I graduated from the Theatre Department in 1992,” she said. Returning to Booker High School as a teacher in 2002, she has been with the program 18 years. “In the first 10 years, I taught screenwriting, cinema literacy, film history and other courses in our TV & Film Program. In 2012, I became the VPA Director, a role that involves overseeing the program’s many facets, including curriculum, hiring staff, marketing, grant-writing and fundraising, and maintaining communications with students and parents.
Together with administrative assistant, Nancy Wachendorf, Abrahamson and Jones comprise the program’s support staff. There are also nine full-time teachers and 13 part-time adjunct faculty. Noted Abrahamson, “One aspect of our program that makes us unique among the arts classes offered at a typical high school is the fact that our faculty are all practicing professionals with illustrious careers outside of teaching.
“The program,” she said, “actively monitors students to ensure their continued progress and success. Classes in each area are offered as blocks, so students are exposed to a range and depth of their discipline that is not accessible in a typical high school setting.” In terms of performance: some are involved in the program because it gives them an outlet for their creativity and expression, but the majority see performance as a part of their life they cannot live without. Many of our performers plan to study performance in college to pursue careers in the arts. We've graduated many successful artists, including some popular stars of stage and screen: Syesha Mercado, Charlie Barnett, Jeff Meacham, LaMichael Leonard, and more.”
The curriculum is demanding and diverse. In terms of performance, Abrahamson said, “Each year is different, but typically, we host 11 major mainstage events (four in Music, four in Theatre, two in Dance, and one Film Showcase), five Senior Showcases, and roughly a dozen smaller recitals, classroom projects, and student works. Each show and performance is a favorite in some way, but a few titles that really remain with me are our Theatre’s performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie, Get Your Gun.” Both were unbelievable to me, even after seeing a number of impressive performances at Booker High School. The Dance Department has also done some really innovative, thought-provoking work, often involving unique set and light design and staging; and perhaps my favorite annual Music event is ‘Death by Chocolate,’ which is a concert set up in a jazz-club style, featuring three stages and a variety of pieces performed on number of instruments.
Recently, the Booker VPA added to its portfolio Phantasmic, a virtual/streamed show that was a multidisciplinary showcase of theatre, music and dance. “Phantasmic explores life’s ephemeral nature, the legacies left by those who’ve departed, and the mysteries of secrets that are taken to the grave,” said Abrahamson. A suitably somber subject for life during Covid. “There are, oddly, pros and cons to the COVID influence on our actual curriculum and program. Obviously, audience constraints, mask mandates, and performance restrictions are limiting what we can do in the classroom and on stage. But, in a weird way, what has emerged in the chaos of our current world context has been a steadfast embrace of the arts: they soothe and settle, they offer the solace of human connectedness in a world that is rife with chaos, division, and fear. This can give us in the modern day an understanding of how the arts have endured throughout history. Far from being superfluous, they are essential to existence. Times like these drive that message home.”
Helping them get the message across is AnywhereSeat by Ludus. “It’s a great tool,” Abrahamson enthused. “We’ve had a few virtual events since the pandemic began, but haven’t had a way of selling tickets or really promoting those events in the way that AnywhereSeat allows. The fact that fees are passed to patrons is great for a small-scale school operation like ours, which can’t really afford to eat fees and expensive subscriptions. Our parent revenue sources are shallow, but we manage to put on incredible productions and create works of wide acclaim.”
Producing Artistic Director Chad Cornwell’s advice for getting on top of the situation is to “realize that you are not in this boat alone." Newsome High School Theatre chooses Opportunity Over Adversity.
“Our students have GREAT ideas about how to manage this storm. Adults cannot presume that we are the end-all-be-all of solving this [because] the young generation has some OUTSTANDING ideas that we never even thought of.”
Any experienced theatre director will tell you that the 2020-2021 will be one for the books. “We usually have two main-stage productions, a fall play and a spring musical,” mused Chad Cornwell, producing artistic director for the Newsome High School Theatre (NHST). “We also produce a competitive one act, two theatre labs (one advanced theatre for each semester), and an access theatre production for students with special needs.”
In the past, these have included 12 Angry Men and a one act of Warren Leight's Dark No Sugar. “We like to explore productions that allow our cast, crew, and audiences to explore and discuss social issues", said Cornwell.
For a relatively recent (2004) and small annual program that comprises up to 100 serious theatre students, Newsome High School Theatre has had much more reach than would have been thought possible. “Our students regularly earn superior ratings at the district and state thespian conferences,” said Cornwell, adding, “One student was cast in the American Stage (Tampa's professional theatre) production of Fun Home. One great success story has been Ashlyn [Jade] Lopez. We have many students now exploring performance and tech at the collegiate levels and seeing success.”
Now, in the wake of COVID, “our students, parents, faculty, and staff are all learning what it means to be flexible.” The “new normal” began in April, after the production of Mary Poppins. “We followed the world's happenings almost every week in order to make the best decisions for our students and families and for our program,” said Cornwell. “There are solutions out there. We did a lot of research from the Educational Theatre Association, the Broadway League, Florida State Athletic Association, and Ludus, about what safe and responsible theatre looks like and how it functions.”
Thanks to AnywhereSeat by Ludus, Newsome High School Theatre can produce virtual-only shows and - once normalcy returns - offer streaming support for live productions. “It's important that, as a global theatre community, we take every opportunity to participate, engage, celebrate each other at every step,” said Cornwell. “This fall, we are producing a virtual performance of Sandy Rustin’'s Everything Seems Like Maybe, which is based on the writings of high school students and their experiences with quarantine and COVID.
“When we looked at the current health situation, we decided to move forward with a fall season,” said Cornwell. “Many schools around us and around the world are shutting down, understandably. So we decided to produce a one act in which we could rehearse in small socially distanced groups, and a virtual production that we are producing as a film. This gives our students both a stage-theatrical experience AND a film/TV experience.” Even more: “Our students also wrote their own original monologues to accompany the script of Everything Seems Like Maybe.”
During a normal school year, the theatre group acts like an ambassador for the arts. “We work to educate our community about theatre,” said Cornwell. Being part of a very conservative community, We program carefully and stress to our students the importance of community engagement with programs like Art In Unexpected places, where performers pop up for impromptu performances around town - promoting our productions, and just feeding art to the world around us. We draw in more students and welcome students from our feeder middle school into our main-stage productions.”
And, in the normal course of events, students literally run the show. “Our students run all tech for all productions,” noted Cornwell. “They learn and serve as stage managers, assistants, and production directors. I have learned that even greater success comes when I step out of the way and empower students to produce great art,” he concluded.
But because of COVID-19, local theatre has become global theatre. “We live and function in a global world,” remarked Cornwell. “It is important that our students' friends and families can experience and celebrate their work.” And while the pandemic has disrupted for parents and educators, it is now part of “normal” for students. “Our students have GREAT ideas about how to manage this storm,” asserted Cornwell. “Adults cannot presume that we are the end-all-be-all of solving this [because] the young generation has some OUTSTANDING ideas that we never even thought of.” In conclusion, Cornwell’s advice for getting on top of the situation is to “realize that you are not in this boat alone. There are so many resources out there to help keep us all afloat - just seek and ask.” And finally: “Don't think anything is too weird, too strange, too off the wall. Now is our time for the arts to create, to produce, to put art out into the world - the world needs us!”