Montclair High’s SVPA changes lives
KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Montclair High's School of Visual and Performing Arts
Titles TBA. For the latest information, visit montclair.k12.nj.us.
Student Showcase: Oct. 26, 27; Nov. 2 and 3, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, 3 p.m.
Winter Drama: Jan. 31, Feb. 1 and 2, 7:30 p.m.
Spring Musical: May 3, 4, 10, 11, 7:30 p.m. May 12, 3 p.m.
Dance Company show, dates TBA.
In addition, other events including a student-directed cabaret and a student-directed show, dates not yet announced.
By GWEN OREL
Most public high schools present a musical, and often a play.
Montclair High School does it a little differently. Theatrical productions are part of the School of Visual and Performing Arts (SVPA), an after-school activity that includes students who design, perform, build, stage manage and play in pit bands.
Students become part of SVPA when they participate in a show: many stick with it all through high school. Typically there are between 80 and 100 students in the program.
Brenda Pepper directs the drama and spring musical, and different people have helmed the autumn showcase, a musical revue. Smaller events, including student-directed or written shows, are held throughout the year.
SVPA holds student orientations and offers senior-freshman mentorships. It is a different feeling than a group of “drama kids” who meet up when they do shows together.
When SVPA was founded in the early 1980s by three teachers, SVPA was a small learning community, like CGI (Civics and Government Institute) and CSJ (Center for Social Justice), said said parent liaison Deb Garrison, drawing on what she learned from Technical Director Kenneth Cleerdin.
The students in SPA, as it was then (the V for visual came in 1990, when art teacher Patrick Dearborn became one of the group’s leaders) took classes together, and rehearsed together as well. They would learn English and history through the lens of performing arts.
Some time after two of the original three founding teachers retired, the program became an after-school club. Related classes in the curriculum are still, vestigially, listed as offerings of SVPA, though it really is not a school anymore.
One thing that has not changed is the impact the program has made on its participants. Many of those in SVPA intend to stay involved in theater; some as a career. Some have been inspired to do so because of their time in SVPA.
On the first day of school, on a day when school had been cut short due to the punishing heat, a group of kids in SVPA sat down on the grass to talk. Some wore their SVPA shirts.
Senior Caroline Graham said she is auditioning for 17 musical theater programs. Senior
Samy Cordero’s number is 23, with some auditions in musical theater and some in drama. This past spring, Cordero, now president of SVPA, had a starring role in 4th Wall Theatre’s production of “Fun Home,” which performed at Studio Playhouse.
Eve Dillingham, also a senior, is applying to BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) programs, and to schools where she can double major in theater and something else.
A few plan to do other things. Lara Harvey, co-head of Tech for SVPA, wants to study English and journalism in college, but do theater on the side. Junior Khari Jenkins plans to stay involved in theater in college but intends to major in applied math.
Harvey said that though she had been involved with theater before joining SVPA, she learned to tap dance at school. And, she said, she had never used a power tool before she joined the tech crew: now tech is her big love.
A SMALLER POND
One of the things that makes SVPA special is its camaraderie. Cordero, who moved to Montclair before high school, said that the 2,000-strong size of the student body can be overwhelming. But with SVPA, “I didn’t have to start fully from scratch,” she said.
Meeting people was a draw for Jenkins too. She had not planned to audition for Showcase freshman year, but her friends made her come to the general meeting. “This school is huge,” she said. “Being a freshman is hard for everyone.” But if you’re cast in Showcase, “that’s 30 more people that you know. Every day I see people that I’ve never seen before.”
Senior Ava Wigdor said that inclusiveness is important to SVPA. “We want to create a feeling that you’re part of the community so they’ll keep auditioning or enter tech to be part of a crew, because we want a lot of new faces,” she said. And though auditions could breed competitiveness, SVPA is a supportive community. “Everyone works hard to build each other up. That’s one thing that makes it unique.”
It is not a clique: Dillingham said that last year a quarterback from the football team was in “Almost, Maine,” a student-directed show.
Of course, SVPA can be a big commitment. Auditions for Showcase were held on the second day of school. Show rehearsals are typically three hours long, and students in all of
the shows are in rehearsals all the time.
“I’ve found it hard to balance schoolwork and rehearsal,” Dillingham said. “But I think the longer hour rehearsals make everyone bond a little bit more, so it’s definitely worth it.”
Dave Maglione, who is directing Showcase 2019 (Showcase is always named for the graduating class, though it takes place in the fall, and does not include only seniors), said the order of the shows over the course of the year helps develop the students’ skills.”The Showcase welcomes the kids into the program. Then we move into the drama, which is more calm, focusing on different elements that you don’t get to in Showcase.” And the final show is the spring musical, which is large and complex, he said.
“Personal growth is a huge element to a high school career,” he said. “The students at Montclair are exceptional. They develop a lot of skills over the course of the program.”
MOMENTS TO REMEMBER
Graham wrote a section of her college essay about Showcase her sophomore year. “We did a ‘Hair’ medley at the end of the show,” she said. “I had a moment of realizing, ‘Yep, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,’ when I was sort of unsure.”
The “Hair” medley was a high point for Jenkins too. Much of the choreography was freeform, so “it was like dancing with your friends onstage.”
Those moments, Wigdor said, are her favorites, because “you feel it inside of you.”
“What Brenda does is try to take shows that don’t have an ensemble and put as many people in it as possible,” Dillingham said. Pepper created a large ensemble for 2017’s “A Chorus Line,” and for “What I Did for Love” the whole ensemble sang. “I literally could see the parents in the audience weeping,” she continued. “My whole body was filled with warmth and love for everyone standing by my side. I will never forget that moment in my life. When I think of SVPA, I will think of the person standing onstage with me during that show.”