Three students from the Valley Stream Central High School District’s performing arts program excelled at Hofstra University’s 69th annual Shakespeare Scene and Design competition on March 6. Courtney Chamblin took home best actor honors; Willow Chamblin won the award for best scenic design; and Ayana Frank brought home her second consecutive first prize for costume design.
Such standout results should not have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the program, which draws from the student bodies of all of Valley Stream’s high schools but is headquartered at Central High School. Under the direction of Elizabeth Kott, students have received professional-level training in a variety of disciplines for the past 15 years.
“I was working as an intern at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven when I began to think about the educational possibilities of theater,” Kott said. After her two-year internship at Long Wharf and a degree from New York University, she said, “I went to a job fair and I met people from the school district. They were planning to start a performing arts program, and they offered it to me. I’ve been here ever since.”
The four disciplines
The program consists of four disciplines: acting, dance, musical theater and theater production. The latter includes set design, lighting and costume design — all the technical “backstage” aspects that make a theatrical performance work.
“The program is open to students from ninth grade on,” Kott said. She emphasized that students do not need to audition or have any previous experience. “In the first year, they learn the basics of each discipline. Then, at the end of the year, they decide if they want to go on. If they do, then they audition. Everyone auditions at the end of every year — even seniors,” she said. “Auditions are part of every performer’s life,” she explained. “We want them to get comfortable with them.”
The program started with roughly 60 students; this year, more than 100 have enrolled. “It’s very demanding,” said Kristin Martine, who teaches dance. “Students do three periods a day, including a double period of dance every other day, and they also take all the other required classes. And many are doing [Advanced Placement] classes, too.”
Lauren Ward is part of this latter group: Her long-term goal is to become a doctor. Meanwhile, her choreography project, “Shallows,” was selected in the nationwide “Dance Up!” competition sponsored by the 92nd Street Y in New York City. It will be presented on Sunday, April 15, at 4 p.m., along with works by other young choreographers.
“I think dance is something I was always meant to do,” Ward said. “I think it’s important to express my creativity.”
She has been dancing since she was a child. “I strayed into gymnastics for a couple of years, but something drew me back” to dance, she said. For the competition at the Y, Ward sent in a video of the technical dress rehearsal for a dance concert that was presented at the school. “I was happy and excited that I won,” she said. “And surprised.” Ward, who is a senior, will head off to the University of Delaware next year to study neuroscience as a pre-med student.
Students study a number of dance disciplines in Martine’s classes. “They do ballet, jazz, modern and African,” she said as the group rehearsed Ward’s piece, a fusion of elements from jazz and modern dance.
One of the dance students, 10th-grader Tracy Fanon, also has acting credentials, having appeared on “Law & Order.” Although she didn’t have a speaking part, she found the experience of working with professionals illuminating. “It was really interesting to see how they put the scenes together and the way the director planned everything out,” she said. Like Ward, Fanon aspires to a career in medicine.
As with all the students interviewed, the 16-year-old Fanon projected a strong sense of self-assurance, awareness and confidence. But before enrolling in the performing arts program, “I was really shy and introverted,” she said. “I feel this program has given me much more confidence in myself.”
Amy Neuner, who directs the musical theater classes along with Patrick Tirino, was working with the cast in preparation for a performance of the musical “Once On This Island,” by Ahrens and Flaherty. The work chronicles a young woman’s voyage of self-awareness, and the choice wasn’t accidental. Like Fanon, “a lot of them were shy,” Neuner said. “This program helps them confront their insecurities and get to know who they really are.”
Tirino agreed. “Even if this is the only place they ever do this, they’ll be better prepared to present themselves in anything else they do,” he said.
Ayana Franck was another student who said she had been shy before entering the program. Franck, whose 12 costumes for Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” based on South African motifs, helped her capture first place at Hofstra, has loved singing since she was a little girl. But “when they said acting? I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, putting myself out there like that.” Now, three years later, Franck is preparing to attend Molloy College on a performance scholarship. “For my audition, I had to write an essay and sing a song. And I had to do a monologue,” which she said would have been unthinkable when she first entered the program.
The range of experiences to which students are exposed is nearly as impressive as the students themselves. In Kott’s acting class, for example, students studied commedia dell’arte, an Italian form of improvised theater featuring stock characters that was popular in the 16th to 18th centuries. In it, the entire script consisted of a general outline for the play and a series of rhymed couplets that would signal the end of each scene. In Kott’s class, students worked in small groups to develop modern interpretations of this tradition. Student directors kept journals of each rehearsal, cataloguing hits and misses and mapping out their next rehearsals.
Roughly 20 to 25 percent of the students go on to careers in the arts, though not necessarily in front of an audience. “A lot of them have gone on to careers in production — lighting, stage management, various kinds of backstage jobs,” musical theater teacher Neuner said.