Early in the semester of Fall 2018, many NHS students were shocked, stunned and perplexed when the theater department announced that the musical, Into the Woods, intended to be performed this fall, was canceled.
One of the individuals for whom this was unsurprising, although no less dramatic, was Stephen Eldredge, a teacher of film and theater at NHS who also directs the theater program. One afternoon during a theater class, Mr. Eldredge spoke to the Devil’s Advocate about the recent difficulties surrounding the school musical, finances, and what to expect from the NHS theater in the future.
Explain why the decision involving the cancellation of this year’s musical Into the Woods was made.
We have had an immensely difficult and lengthy struggle, trying to establish the status of the musical… It is now officially canceled. We took a long time to cancel it because we were trying so hard to make it work. In the first place, we had wanted to move it to the fall and have it replace our fall show slot, we thought that would solve a number of problems for us. Unfortunately, we found when we moved it to the fall that we had a number of very difficult scheduling conflicts that were happening. One was there were a lot more students involved in sports… there were a series of many conflicts with students who wanted to be involved in the musical who were involved with fall sports. We also discovered that it was very difficult for our techies, particularly the stage managers, who are applying to colleges in the fall, and therefore the workload of stage-managing the musical was going to make it impossible for them to do the show. We tried moving it farther back in the fall and we found ourselves coming into conflict with other events, including music concerts and things like that, and finally, the weekend that we had originally scheduled for that used to be the traditional weekend we’ve done fall shows on, turned out to be a huge conflict with what’s known as the MIT Splash weekend, and many of our theater techies go to Splash… and they had booked far in advance because we had not originally planned the show that weekend. So we discovered we had no crew at all for the musical. We then tried to move it to the spring, back to its original slot, and we had a series of other conflicts, beyond the scheduling issues. We have really difficult complications now with how stipends (the amounts paid to someone doing something for the school, according to Eldredge) work for the people that direct, musical direct, choreograph and set design, etc, we had a series of stipends that had been negotiated via the teacher’s union with the school committee, and the stipends simply weren’t working for the production team, and we didn’t have time to renegotiate the stipend amounts. So at that point, we could not pull the production team together… The people that were working on the musical put a huge amount of time into the musical, and the way we had been paying some of the key personnel was combining several older stipend amounts in order to give them what would be an acceptable amount. Under the collective bargaining agreement between the teacher’s union and the school committee, that approach is no longer viable, we can’t do that. And so we have to reset the amounts. Another problem is simply that when you’re doing a show, depending on who you hire, depending on their experience, their profile in the community, you might pay them more or less… we could not find a way to pay her (the intended musical director) what she deserved for the position… This has been a really sticky problem for the past three years, we’ve had a lot of difficulty trying to work out how to handle stipending theater professionals… we’re still having a tremendously difficult time with the stipends.
At what point did you first realize that the musical was going to be in the state that it was?
The problem crept up slowly on us but we realized the night before our official auditions that too many issues had accumulated and we were forced to, temporarily at least, cancel auditions- that’s when we believed the show was going to be in the fall. Then we started trying to workout those problems and new problems kept cropping up, and then each step of the way, people had wanted to come in and help and try to solve them, so there was a point when the production team was convinced we couldn’t do the show, but at that point both our principal Mr. Lombardi and the superintendent Dr. Provost wanted to make a big effort to make the musical work in any way they could, so we reevaluated our entire model for producing the musical, and in fact, are working on it a very different way of producing not just the musical but any theater production in the future that would not involve using stipends, but would involve an outside entity providing a service to the school, and that’s what we’re now trying, that model, with the production that we are replacing the musical with. One of the reasons we wanted to move the musical to the fall was because we had such a great time last year, taking an original piece of theater to the state high school play competition, which happens to be at the same time as our musical, and we were hoping this year, by moving the musical to the fall, we could do both things. Unfortunately when the musical moved back to the spring we had to at least temporarily cancel that production, what we call METG, which stands for Massachusetts Educational theater Guild, play festival. And then once we realized that the musical couldn’t happen, we have made a huge effort, under a very short deadline, to develop a production that we could submit to the state, and we think we have it. We will be now trying that production as a relationship with an outside… I don’t know what you call it, an outside vendor, an outside director, Marie Brown, who has been directing musicals for the last two years, we’ve restructured how she’s going to do this, and we’re hoping that if this works, that’s how we will do the musical going forward.
How did you feel, having to make this decision?
The feelings were pretty profound- sadness, horror, rage, I would say that the well-known stages of grief are what all of us who were involved with the musical have been experiencing. Moving from denial to anger, et cetera. We’re just reaching resignation on the musical for this year.
What response did this get from people who had already expressed interest in participation in Into the Woods?
A wider range, I mean there were people who’d expressed interest in involvement, may not have gone through the intensity of what we’ve been experiencing, but there’s been a range of reactions, from anger and frustration, to intense curiosity and really, a need to know more, to want to know more. So, we have a group known as the Friends of Northampton High School theater, or FONHST, who are really dedicated to trying to help us fundraise and manage doing both the musical and other productions- by the way, the other issue with the musical was that we’re very low on funds! The show’s been losing money the last couple of years, and the school district wasn’t willing to go forward with the risk of having the liability, of having to cover our losses. We’ve never had to use a penny of the school or city budget to support the musical in the past, and by and large it has made money, along with our other productions, but we have gone through three difficult years as we are struggling with stipends, and with losing our original musical team, Deb Koone and Bo Flahive, who resigned from the musical three years ago. So there are people who are now trying to help us raise funds and get the musical back on its feet.
Similar financial issues have plagued several musicals in the past. With the musical now out of the way, what is the likelihood that the theater department will have an easier year financially?
No, not doing the musical doesn’t solve financial problems. Not doing the musical will give us more time to focus on trying to solve the financial problems, and allows us to do an innovative production for the second year in a row, that will go to the state competition. We’re turning our attention in terms of production to our one-act festival, the shorts fest, which opens next week, and to our student productions- we have two student productions coming up this spring.
Have any events this year forced the theater department to cancel all earlier plans and start the entire program over from scratch?
No, it’s really hard to start over from scratch mid-stream. So, we put a great deal of time and energy and emotion in the fall into really trying to make the musical happen, and once we finally had to acknowledge defeat, we were halfway through the fall semester, with our other productions already in line to do, so we are doing our best to keep going. In terms of starting over again, I would say that where I believe we will have to start over again is how we financially approach doing any extracurricular production in the future- I don’t think we can do any extracurricular productions using the current stipend structure.
How do you see this cancellation affecting the theater department, currently and in the future?
Well, I’ve decided that, as how we do extracurricular activities evolves, that I don’t think I can actually be involved any longer in extracurricular theater here. I think I’m going to have to concentrate on teaching and administrating the program. It is just becoming too complex, and too expensive, and too exhausting, to try to mount extracurricular productions myself. So, if and when we do them, we need help from outside. That’s a good question.
What else is the theater department planning for this year, whether pre-planned or a recent decision?
That’s a very good question- so let me start a little bit from the beginning on that. So, we try to have the full season planned for the following year by the end of each spring semester. So, as of last June, we were expecting to do the musical in the fall, and to take a play to the state play competition in March… and to do the one-act festival in December… and to follow up with two student productions at the end of the year, in May- those productions are Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by senior Aurora Flynn, and… The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and that play is directed by senior Jesse Zeldes. That was our planned season- if we work really hard and fast and well, we will manage to mount everything except the musical.
Does there appear to be a shift to shows of a smaller scale this year?
Well, the answer is yes and no- the METG show, by the rules of the festival, has to be under 40 minutes long, but it’s a show that we have to mount in such a way that it can tour outside the school, and that gives us big challenges. It also allows us to focus on an innovative kind of theater-making that’s known as “devised theater,” which is a way to have the students be very heavily involved with creating the play itself. The director brings in ideas, texts, scenes, and the actors work with the director to explore those, improvise, and write original material. This is the third year in a row we’ll be working with devised theater, and the students are very excited by the process- so, the play is shorter, but I would not say it’s that small a scale, it’s going to be a very, very intensive experience. It’s also going to have very extensive costume design and production- original costume work for it- it’s going to be very visual… we’ll have all-student designers do lighting and sound and set design and building- so in that sense, it’s actually a pretty big project. Also, the show will perform here, and then be toured to another part of the state, and then likely at the very end of the year, we’ll also go to the brand new festival being hosted by PPPA in May. The student productions, people often, when they’re first talking to me about a student production, they think that these are small-scale things, like one-acts, but in fact, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Nightis a vast, sprawling play, and will be very large-scale, and the play we’ve nicknamed “Gamma Rays” is also a very intense and involved full-length play. So those productions are all very large-scale, and very demanding exercises.
What do you hope to see from the theater department in the future?
Well, there are several things that I’m wishful for- more volunteer involvement from parents and community. Plays are complex and demanding events, and we just don’t have enough adult availability within the building to shepherd a theater production, from first concept to final performance, without help. We need adult mentors who would be willing to come in and work with our technicians and work with actors, and we need volunteers to help publicize and promote and run box-office- we need help, physically… we need people to put time in. I would also very much like to see a financial model that will give us the flexibility to produce different plays in different ways. One of the problems with the stipend system is that the stipends are very rigid, but theater productions vary widely in terms of what their needs are. Some shows need a professional costume designer, many shows we can have students do it. Some shows need fight choreographers or they need a special set, or they need a special music director who can help our singers grow, and become better singers and not damage their voices. And this changes with every show, it even changes with every musical. So we need to be able to approach each production in its own way- and unfortunately the stipend system makes it impossible for us to do that. For myself… I would like to get some sleep… for myself I would like to establish better boundaries around what kinds of activities my time goes towards, so that I can devote the best of my time towards the most important things I have to do, which are teaching and mentoring students.
What is the likelihood that the school musical will be revived in the future, as either Into the Woods or in the form of a different show?
Well, every time we decide to do a musical, we have to find out if we can even get the rights to it. This year I had to go through that process twice- once to try to get the rights to do it in November, and then again, I had to reapply to try to get the rights to do it in March. I was successful both times but you never know- there are all kinds of reasons that rights can be denied, if there’s a professional tour or another school nearby doing it… If and when we do put a production team together, that team will collectively, with input from the students, decide what that team wants to do. So we’ll never know exactly what show we’re doing until we have a production team, a director with a proposal, and I’m very insistent that the students have some voice in our decision process, so we normally spend time, a month or so in the spring, discussing alternatives and trying to find a range of musicals that has both interest from the students and interest from the professionals who would be directing. We are beginning work immediately on planning for next year’s musical. We have some big obstacles to overcome- the first is funding. Our reserves are very low, and we need to raise money. The second is coming up with a way to be able to put together a production team and pay them adequately. The third is finding that production team and finding a way to fit the musical into the schedule with the least amount of conflicts. If anyone is interested, in either learning more about this process or helping, they should send an email to the following address: email@example.com. That’s the email address for our booster club, the Friends of NHS Theater.
Those are all the questions we have, so thank you for your time.
Those were great questions… Thank you so much.