July 2011

MCHS theater students head to Scottish festival

By Pamela Lutz

A group of high-school theater students from Cortez will be headed to Scotland in August for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, said to be the largest arts festival in the world.

Ironically, the teacher responsible for their being there no longer works at Montezuma- Cortez High School, and budget woes have forced cutbacks in the theater department.

One thousand schools were nominated to apply for the festival, of which only 50 would be chosen.

“It was about a year ago that I first heard we had been invited to apply,” said Bennie Palko-Herrera. At the time Herrera was the drama teacher at MCHS.

“We were honored and excited. We completed the application, sent it off, and crossed our fingers.”

Herrera was then a full-time teacher. Subsequently, the school district downsized the theater department, and her contract was not renewed.

When Herrera and her students received the news that they had been invited to perform at The Fringe, they were faced with a tough decision. Go it alone, without the support of their high school, or let this prospect pass them by.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Miranda Warren, one of the students going to Scotland. “Turning it from a dream into a reality is a life lesson – if you want something you have to go out and get it.”

Removing themselves from their high school meant forming their own theater group and turning their teacher into a sponsor. Thus the birth of StageDweller Productions.

Of the 17 students who initially showed interest in the trip, five have committed to going: Warren, Lecil James, Mariah Kingery, Bryan Tripp, and Kaytlyn Alexander.

They will perform in the American High School Theatre Festival, a part of The Fringe.

The Fringe is internationally known. 2009 statistics recorded 34,265 performances of 2,098 shows in 265 venues. Ticket sales for that year were 1.8 million.

When asked what they are looking forward to the most, Kingery replied, “Seeing and meeting other theatre geeks like us from around the world.”

The students will perform “Standing on my Knees,” by John Olive, about a female writer coping with mental illness and the effects it has on her relationships.

“Through a lengthy process of voting, I let the kids choose what they would perform,” Herrera said. She called “Standing On My Knees” a “fun and challenging piece.”

The biggest hurdle has been fund-raising. Each warm body needs $6,393 to make the trip. This includes air fare, lodging, food, fees to perform, the West End show they will see in London, and the workshop at the Globe Theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company they will participate in.

Each student is required to come up with half the money, and the other half is to be raised through group effort. Each began by asking their immediate and extended family for money. They also took jobs to help.

“We’re just a bunch of goofy kids who want to go to Scotland and are willing to make it happen for ourselves,” Tripp said.

Much imagination has gone into fundraising. And they are well within reach of their goal.

As a part of the group fund-raising they wrapped presents outside Walmart on Black Friday, had a car-smashing on homecoming night, wrote, produced, and performed their own Christmas show, did yard work for folks in the community, and held a raffle of locally donated items.

“I went to local businesses and asked for money,” said James.

They are also accepting donations through gofundme.com. Look for Stagedweller- Fringe on the web page to make a contribution.

The task – and the risk involved in fundraising – is for the most part what made other students back away from the trip.

The trip is being planned through World- Strides, a student travel organization. “From the time the trip is planned you have to start giving money towards your fund-raising goal to WorldStrides, and the closer you get to the trip, the less and less money you get back for canceling,” said Tamara Hamilton, mother of one of the students who decided against going. “We canceled pretty early on and of the thousand [dollars] that we had already given, we only got five hundred back.”

If the five students going to Scotland could have a theme song it would be, “I Get Knocked Down (But I Get Up Again)” by Chumbawamba. As they pack their bags, travel to the airport and embark upon their journey to Scotland, they can feel proud of their achievement.

The bad news to them has been the downsizing of the MCHS theater department. The school will be hiring a new, parttime drama teacher for the fall.

“Herrera was amazing with the kids,” Hamilton said. “She turned a simple drama class into a full-on theater department. She created a thespian society. She had the ability to bring out a level of emotion in the kids that they didn’t even know they possessed.”

One former MCHS student, Kyle Mc- Caw, said, “My participation in the performing- arts program in high school inspired me to attend college, and I studied performing arts my first year at UNC.”

“Performing arts is my child’s passion,” said Kristin Croker, mother of Lecil James. “It is her intention to study the arts in college and become a professional in the field.”

The loss of the theater department raises a question in Croker’s mind. “What about those students who will miss the opportunity to find out that the theater department will become their home away from home, their safe haven, a place to express themselves, a place to become confident, motivated, and happy?”

Croker and Lecil are considering other schools. “My daughter’s needs are not being met at MCHS and the loss of a full theater department is a big component in that decision,” Croker said.

School District Re-1 Superintendent Stacey Houser did not return phone calls from the Free Press.

However, Jack Schuenemeyer, a member of the Re-1 district board, said he believes arts have an important role in the curriculum. “It has been documented by studies that students’ skills in the sciences will be enhanced by their participation in the creative arts.” Schuenemeyer emphasized that his comments are his opinion only and not the opinion of the board as a whole.

“I don’t believe the board or administration are against the theater department, as may be perceived in the community,” he said. “The changes in the theater department were due to budget cuts and low participation in the department.”

Schuenemeyer does not see this as the end of the theater department. “It will make a comeback,” he said.