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The Little Black Box That Could: This Is How We Do It New York City Public School Style

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Another year has come and gone with parents in the city stressing through the process of getting their kids into school; public or private, kindergarten, middle or high school. I call it the "New York City Poll Tax"; the price we pay for raising our kids here. As more families are choosing to raise their kids in the city, the pressures only increase.

News often focuses on problems. We hear year after year about cuts in funding, budget cuts that administrators face on a daily basis. They are constantly making compromises with the hope that what keeps kids turned on to learning will be preserved. No easy task.

The Beacon School is one of New York City's public high schools located behind Lincoln Center. A school like others that has struggled with budget cuts year after year, but whose principal has been committed to preserving the arts.

In two weeks, BDAT, (Beacon Dramatic Arts Department) will present the first high school production of the recent hit Broadway show Spring Awakening. I sat down to interview the woman chiefly responsible for this production, to learn more about the process whereby one school has, in a time of massive budget cuts, fostered an environment whereby they can not only take on this project, but are the first school to obtain the rights to produce this show.

Q: Do you have anything to say about arts in the schools in general, or in particular with the current cuts?

Beacon has continued to keep the arts a priority despite constant challenges presented by the city and state. We are lucky to have administrators who are artists themselves. The arts programs at Beacon are what get our kids to school every day. They live for their acting classes, the choir, the films they make, their time in the dance studio or the catacombs of music rooms. The whole school day is designed around the release afforded by creative work. Students create in every class, every subject. So inevitably our kids end up specializing in a particular craft. Theatre is where the indecisive kids settle. As theatre artists they don't have to choose. They are artistically amphibious -- musicians, actors, sculptors, photographers, seamstresses, playwrights.

How do we pay for it? We bake A LOT of cookies. Host fundraising events. Sell off our recycled costumes. Willingly take donations -- of both cash and services. Our incredible parents donate their time and skills and resources. One parent is a contractor and donates lumber, another a fashion designer, her sample garments land in our costume collection. Most importantly however, Dave Moodey, our technical director, who despite his daughter's graduation from Beacon several years ago, returns season after season to teach what he loves to young talent. Our community recognizes that there is something really special going on in our little studio, so they rally to keep as many kids busy as possible. I firmly believe busy kids are safe kids. Raising the money is worth fighting for!

Q: What gave you the idea to do this particular show? Are there any themes that resonate to date for current high schoolers?

In 2006 I was asked to bring one of my students to see Spring Awakening as a guest of the Theatre Development Fund. We were a test market for an upcoming educational program because people were nervous about the content, and the nudity, and the language. When invited to respond to anything in the play that might have upset or disturbed her, my then 16-year-old student said, "Oh god, no, it was absolutely beautiful!"

I couldn't have agreed more. For years I've been a fan of Duncan Sheik's music and I was thrilled to see something so relevant to the teenage experience and so theatrically magical at the same time on Broadway. I ended up taking hundreds of students to see the production with TDF.

Later in 2008 Beacon was lucky enough to collaborate with The Power Writers, which was directly connected to Broadway's Spring Awakening. Beacon students developed original poetry, drama, dance and music based on their response to the play. As a culminating event students performed their original works with Broadway cast members at the Zipper Theatre and I was asked to direct the finale performance of "Totally F#$ked." At the time it was amazing just to see Beacon students sharing the stage with professional actors who would later star in Glee. But I also met author Steven Sater that evening and remember his earnest response to "real teenagers" performing the work. He was floored how much raw energy they brought to the text. I have been determined to produce Spring Awakening with Beacon students ever since.

As far as why produce it now? Beacon is graduating the strongest class of theatre students in our school's history. They are ambitious, mature, musically capable and brave. When the rights became available, I asked our incredible musical director, Lilli Wosk, if she was up for the challenge and she and I both practically burst into tears with excitement. We knew we could do it, we knew our kids could handle it -- we just had to get the rights.

Q: How did you get the show, or the rights to do it? How is that done in general and was it different for this show in particular?

They became available. I asked for them. I waited as patiently as I could and nothing came of it. When I called Music Theatre International to see if our contract was stopped because we were a school -- I couldn't get a straight answer. Generally speaking when you request a contract it is approved in about six weeks -- but after several months of no response I got nervous. I knew the School Edition of Spring Awakening was in development and I was terrified that if we were offered a license it would be as heavily distorted as Rent; School Edition -- which is the only edition high schools are permitted to legally produce. I talked to our kids, and our administration and we agreed that if we couldn't stage Spring Awakening as written we'd go with a different title.

So I called every day until our wonderful rep at Musical Theatre International, Mike DePope, confirmed that we were being considered for a full license but it had to be approved by the playwright. I don't know what changed that day, but Mike must have spoken to the authors because we had a license with in 24 hours. Maybe Steven Sater remembered that night at the Zipper when Beacon alumni Alexandra Campos and Luke Hoffmaier poured their hearts out into his words. I have never wanted anything so badly in my 20 years of play making as I knew this play with this group of students would be life changing for every person involved. Our principal, Ruth Lacey, supported the project from the very beginning and she helped me expedite the payment of the contract so that we wouldn't lose it. We then held our breath for six days until the first day of school to tell the kids.

We called an "emergency meeting" and got all of our students in the studio before the official start of school. We stalled and stalled with lame business matters, set up a video camera. The kids all thought we were going to tell them one of us were pregnant or leaving, but Lilli, Bessie award-winning choreographer Doug Elkins and I just wanted to all be there to see their faces when we slipped in the news, "Oh and guess what, we got the rights to Spring Awakening, un cut" almost like an afterthought to an announcement about our ever-present need for fundraising.

Pandemonium. They fell apart. A few kids burst into tears. Some just couldn't stop giggling. They blushed. They sat gap jawed. This play means so much to them. It is so personal. So unabashedly real and to say that they were jumping out of their precious little skins to get started is the understatement of the year.

Q: How did you start BDAT at Beacon and when? What existed at that point when you came into the school? How do you see that things have changed, or grown?

B'DAT was born in October of 2004, less than six weeks after I joined the Beacon faculty. When I was hired our drama studio was a white multi-purpose room with a few old stage lights and so so much potential. Vice Principal Harry Streep recruited me to grow a theatre department from the ground up. Then principal, Steve Stohl, pointedly charged me to push the envelope. He encouraged me to choose material that had something important to teach, reflected the diversity of our students and honored my own artistic desire to make great work.

That first year, a motley crew that I had to beg to audition built our first production, The House of Blue Leaves. Fifteen plays later we have a proper black box with soundproofing, ample electric supply, a tech theatre training program, a roster of guest artists and hundreds of kids audition and volunteer for main stage productions. We've had to add after school classes, a show choir and a freshman project to keep up with student demand. If we could afford it, had the space for it, and the faculty to teach it, we could absolutely produce six plays a year and students would still be begging for more.

But the essential mission of B'DAT is still the same. We offer hands on pre-professional training experience for student artists in good academic standing at the Beacon School. There is no experience required to join -- just a tenacious work ethic and desire to learn. Students are required to experience life on and off the stage. We train theatre artists -- not just actors. In less than a decade I believe that B'DAT students have changed our community for the better. Many have pursued training in top colleges and those who are now adults are acting, and teaching and writing and continuing to make plays, TV and film. Two students, one who works for MTV, and one who is pursuing a MA in higher education at Columbia, who were with us on that very first show are even expecting the first B'DAT baby!

So really I could not be more pleased, surprised or proud of our growth and frankly how much fun we have in the process. We produce plays that challenge how our audience thinks and feels and Spring Awakening is no exception. I hope the play opens dialogue about the teenage experience -- not just about the colorful language or violence inherent in the story. When people hear Spring Awakening all they can think about is the sex. But really this play is about so much more than that. To me Spring Awakening is about grace in every sense of the word. As we move through the staging I'm in awe of how profoundly the material resonates on so many levels and how much the kids really get it. For example, Zachary Kruskal, who plays Moritz, and I had an incredible discussion last week about faith and morality and responsibility and art. In what other forum can such things collide in a lunchtime chat than in the context of making a challenging play? And furthermore, what is more full of grace than that?

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BDAT, or Beacon Drama Art Theatre, is pleased to announce the debut of the folk rock musical Spring Awakening at the Beacon School from April 26-May 5, 2012. The contemporary adaptation of Frank Wedekind's play of the same name won eight Tony Awards in 2007 and cultivated almost as much controversy as it did renown. A candid look at emerging sexuality, the play is set in late 19th century Germany but is disturbingly current in its discussion of love, abuse, abortion, homosexuality and faith. With Duncan Sheik's lush score and Steven Sater's sparsely poetic text, Spring Awakening is an earnest and heart-wrenching tour de force through the teenage experience.

Spring Awakening is designed and staged by Jo Ann Cimato with the award-winning choreographer Doug Elkins and emerging talent, Lilli Wosk at the baton.

Starring Nicole Davis, JoMack Miranda, Zachary Kruskal, Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz, and Isabel Schnall, with Anna Aronson and Eliot Turner as the adults Spring Awakening plays for 10 performances in the Beacon Drama Studio, 227 West 61st Street, New York, NY 10023.

Performances are:
Thursday April 26 at 4 p.m.
Friday April 27 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Saturday April 28 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Thursday May 3 at 4 p.m.
Friday May 4 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Saturday May 5 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Admission is $10 to the general public, $8 for students.
Press is invited gratis with advanced reservation. For ticket reservations and availability please contact the B'DAT Box Office at bdat@beaconschool.org.