July 31, 2008

Duluth School District Citywide Musical Program Under Pressure

By Sarah Horner, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Jul. 31--The pressure is on for students performing in the Duluth school district's citywide musical this week. Not only do they have to remember all their lines, they have to deliver them well enough to pack the house for every show. If they don't, the future of the program may once again be in jeopardy.

The history of the all-city musical -- a program that pulls together high school students from Central, East and Denfeld for a summer production -- has been a tumultuous one. Since its inception in 1968, the Duluth school district has pulled funding a couple of times for financial reasons. After returning last year, the program is still hanging on, but by a different thread.

After learning that the Duluth school district, which is battling tough financial times, would not pay for the program this summer without the guarantee that the show would at least break even on ticket sales, the program coordinators had to turn elsewhere. The Denfeld Music Boosters agreed to step in. But with an outside organization fronting the money, Liz Larson, this year's production director, said there is added pressure to make sure the show is a hit.

"That means we are really no longer really doing educational theater; we are doing commercial theater," Larson said. "That scares me because we're not working with professional actors. These are kids, some of whom have never been on a stage before, that are just trying to learn."

The kids in this year's show, "Grease," say they feel the heat.

"We are trying to hit our marks harder, sing louder, smile bigger ... so we can make sure this same opportunity is around for future kids," said Rachel Johnson, a Denfeld graduate involved in the musical. "Hopefully the audience will feel just as strongly about keeping the program alive and come out to support it."

Students say the program is one of few that allow them to get to know peers from neighboring high schools. They also said it provides an opportunity for kids bogged down with academics and other activities during the school year a chance to try theater.

"If it wasn't for this, I would probably have never thought to do theater," said Ben Holt, a sophomore at Central. "I look forward to it in the summer; it gives people a chance to forget about their daily problems and just come and have a good time with good people."

It also lends itself to making great friends, said Hanna Durfee, a junior at Denfeld whose eyes filled with tears when asked what the program meant to her.

"It really overwhelms me to talk about it because everybody is just so helpful and positive ... it's really a great summer experience to take with you."

That's why the Denfeld Music Boosters decided to step in with the $10,000, said Patty Langlee, the club's president.

"This is one of the best programs we've seen in this district in terms of providing inclusive activities for kids," Langlee said. She added that she knew her group was taking a gamble by fronting the musical the money, but said the program's past performances -- which have typically yielded a profit -- made it a sound investment. Even if the show doesn't break even, the boosters have enough money in their budget to cover the costs, she said.

Mark Overland, Denfeld's choral director, said the boosters' aid provides some stability to the musical program for now, but he doesn't know how long it will last.

"As long as this serves the needs of the kids and it doesn't put a significant drain on the boosters I am sure they will keep doing it. But if they take a loss they will have to ask themselves how long they are willing to sustain it," he said.

That's why it's so important for "Grease" to be a hit, Larson said. If they turn a nice profit, they can carry the money over as seed money for next year's show.

"Oh my God, I have never been so tense," she said. "This thing has become so big in our minds because we know it has to be successful this year to stay around, and we all believe it needs to stay around. So if people want to see another show next year they better get their butts down here and see 'Grease'."

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at [email protected]


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