By Callia Gilligan
Theater. Whether musicals or plays, theater is an art form, a way of telling a story. Theater can be colorful, sad or happy, include big dance numbers or stay simple with minimal choreography and small casts.
Some say Broadway doesn’t have the same appeal it used to, others say there has never been a better time for it. I think both are true. Playwrights and directors have steered away from the classic sound of Broadway musicals such as those written by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim. Many new and somewhat foreign technical aspects, themes and concepts have been added to Broadway, with shows such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls and Be More Chill. These shows have pop-rock scores and are drawing in younger audiences. Are classic musicals fading? Yes. Is Broadway dying? No.
In addition to driving up the box office, these trends in theater have encouraged more young people to participate in their high school drama programs. As a theater kid myself, I think this is great. Drama departments are always better with bigger casts. This however, requires a bigger budget. If you look at television shows like Glee that are set in high schools, the music and drama programs are often underfunded. But does this reflect real life? Are real high school drama programs underfunded? This got me thinking about our school. Do we have a self-sustaining drama club? What about other schools? Is high school theater on the South Shore adequately funded?
So, I took to the Internet, emailing drama teachers from schools around the South Shore and requesting interviews. Mr. Christopher Lacy, drama club adviser at Norwell High School, is very experienced, having directed 89 shows in 18 years. The budget allocated by the town to the drama program each year is $10,000, according to Mr. Lacy. “The rest is funded from box office sales,” he said. Norwell does not perform musicals, which are often more expensive than traditional plays, but that is not because of the cost, Mr. Lacy said. “People these days really only know musicals,” he added. “We could do this but we won’t because I am first and foremost an acting coach and non-musical plays are a more effective vehicle for that purpose.”
When asked if the drama club could benefit from increased funding, Mr. Lacy replied, “Of course, more is always better.” Yet, Norwell seems to get by on its budget and box office receipts; the drama club does not conduct any independent fundraising.
Mrs. Gwen Chapman, Director of Fine and Performing Arts in the Pembroke School District, reported that the school committee budgets $9,500 to the drama program each year. This is $500 less than what Norwell is given. How much can you do with $500? A lot. Securing the rights to perform a show varies from $75-$250 per performance depending on the license. If it costs $250 and a high school chooses to perform the show three times, that’s $750 from the budget. That’s before adding in the cost of sets, costumes, pit orchestras, etc. The majority of the drama budget is spent on the fall musical, which Mrs. Chapman said costs around $13,000 to produce. The drama club holds one large fundraiser every year that raises about $1,000-1,500 and covers 10 percent of the drama budget. Even then, the club is just barely producing one musical. The cost of putting on any additional shows must be funded by ticket sales, Mrs. Chapman said.
Mrs. Anita Levy-Sisk, the drama teacher at Hingham High School, is in a more difficult budget situation. The town does not provide a budget to the drama club, though some stipends are given. The school relies largely on the its box office sales to produce the next show. The fall musical brings in a lot of revenue ($4,000-$6,000 in profits) but they are lucky if their spring play breaks even, Mrs. Levy-Sisk said. The majority of their budget is spent on securing rights for the performances, so the school runs 3-4 fundraisers each year to supplement profits from ticket sales.
Hanover operates on a different model than these other schools. In 2015, the town created the Hanover Performing Arts Company (HPAC). Operating under the Family And Community Enrichment (FACE) department, HPAC centralized production – and funding – for musicals for grades 1-12. This move established drama programs at each of the elementary schools for the first time, and began to develop a foundation for the future of performing arts in the district, according to FACE director Kelly Lawrence.
At the high school level, the drama program is part of the curriculum, meaning, it’s funded by the school budget as other classes are in the school. The Drama Club, which puts on a festival show and spring play each year, is a separate extra curricular similar to The Indian or Robotics Club. The school provides a stipend for the adviser, and the club, like all others, is “supported mainly through fundraising efforts,” Lawrence said. The Drama Club operates independently except for the annual musical, which falls under the umbrella of HPAC. Additionally, the Drama Club receives from HPAC the assistance of a coordinator experienced in stage management and the support of its “infrastructure and resources.” Budgets for school shows are “set depending on the needs of each,” Lawrence said. HPAC is a self-funded division of FACE, Lawrence continued, supported by student fees, ticket and concession revenue and grants for resources used to support all productions. The HPAC coordinator position is funded by FACE, Lawrence said. “At this time, (HPAC) is unable to support that cost without increasing fees to student/families.”
“Our goal is to continue to develop quality programs in all areas of the performing arts to increase our overall budget for the HPAC division,” Lawrence said.
While this model has done a lot for the drama program, I’m concerned about the reliance on fundraising and grants. In fact, when comparing drama programs at the four South Shore districts, it seems that while they’re supported in some way by their towns, they would undoubtedly be able to do more with larger budgets. Concerned with paying off costs and putting on the next show, clubs must spend time planning fundraisers that may or may not make enough money to meet their needs. Theater is so magical for the people involved, and it would be disheartening to think drama teachers are struggling to give this joy to their students. I wanted to know if my friends on sports teams had to fundraise as well. I was surprised that the answer was yes. Perhaps the bigger question we need to ask is not whether drama programs are underfunded, but whether all extracurricular activities could use more support.