Enjoy the photos and a view behind the curtain.
By Mark Bishop, Director of Performing Arts
The academic year of 1967/1968 is remembered for many things. It was a tumultuous time in our country. From September of 1967 through June of 1968, the following events highlighted the year. The Beatles released “Magical Mystery Tour”. Walter Washington was appointed the first Mayor of Washington DC. Revolutionary figure Che Guevara was captured and executed. “Hair” premiered off Broadway. The “March on the Pentagon” drew 50,000 protesters. The US population passed 200 million people. The first heart transplant was performed. President Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election amid ongoing struggles in Vietnam. The Poor People’s’ March on Washington, led by Dr. King, was started. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film) premiered in Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated which led to five days of riots in Washington and across the country. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Hallelujah, Baby” won the Tonys. And Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
It was against this backdrop that St Albans was completing the ambitious construction project of the “New Wing” which included new classroom space, a new library, a new art studio and a new auditorium. The first documented use of the auditorium came on Friday, May 17th, 1968 with the opening of “Billy Budd”, the first theatrical production in the auditorium. In fact, this event occurred before the building was complete, and a program note from the director, Ted Walch, explains why the theater seats had not yet been installed! (see photo). This production marked the beginning of the fifty years that the Coordinate Drama and Theater Program has presented their productions in this space, and what I like to refer to as the modern era of the Drama and Theater Program. Up until this time STA and NCS mounted parallel productions.
Productions at STA were often mounted in the Trophy Room or Guild Hall at St. Albans Parish, while NCS used the larger Whitby Gym as their theater space. While the schools mounted productions with their respective student bodies, they also came together to work on joint productions. Notable among these were original musicals conceived and written by Canon Richard Wayne Dirksen, who at the time was the assistant Choirmaster and Organist at the Washington National Cathedral. Mr. Ted Walch, an English teacher who joined the faculty in 1966, directed productions at STA while Mrs. Gwendolyn Coney, who joined the NCS faculty in 1964, directed productions at NCS. It was these two directors who were instrumental in creating a unified Coordinate Drama Program that ushered in the modern era.
Along with the new theater space at STA came the need for more specialized technical support. A full time Technical Director was hired. Three faculty members filled that role in the 60’s. They were Mr. Chris Sarandon, Mr. Richard Pardy and Mr. Albert Ihde. A Costume Designer was also hired at NCS, Mrs. Wren Cooper filled that position.
As 1969 turned to 1970, the Drama Program moved into the new decade building on it’s early strengths. The 1970 Albanian opened with a piece on the establishment of the Coordinate Program (see photo) between the two schools. The Drama Program was certainly a key player in this with students from both schools working together in a newly formed Coordinate Drama Club. Since that time, and moving forward through the years, the theater has always been a place and activity where students from both schools form strong friendships.
Another significant event in took place on February 17th of 1970. Having been known simply as the St Albans Theater for its first two years, the school received a generous bequest from Mrs. Aida Trapier, the widow of Mr. Allston Trapier, and the theater was dedicated as Trapier Theater.
With a newly named theater, a burgeoning program, and a solid faculty. The Drama Program had established its place in the lives of the school.
The 70’s also saw the establishment of a season structure that would be in place until the early 2000’s featuring a fall US play a fall LS play, a Winter small cast play in the US, LS lab shows in the spring and a spring musical during flower mart weekend.
Mrs. Coney was on the faculty until 1974 at which time Mr. Walch became the sole upper school director in the program. Mrs Cooper continued in the role of Costume Designer. Mr. Robert Downes served for one year as the Technical Director, and was succeeded by Mr. Ed Crow, who joined the faculty, along with his wife, Mrs. Anne Stone Crow in 1971. Mrs. Patricia Witt joined the faculty in 1974 as a Middle School teacher and director. As the decade closed, Mr. Walch and Mr. Crow moved on from St Albans and Anne Stone Crow served as the interim department chair while a search was conducted for a successor to Mr. Walch.
The 80’s proved to be a decade of comings and goings in the Drama Department with the one constant being Mrs. Witt. Mr Steve Stettler and Mr. Mark Godfrey each served as department chair for four years, and the decade ended with Mrs. Witt as department chair. There were five different technical directors: Mr Dean Adams (STA ’75), Mr. Matt Rosmus, Ms. Caroline Bord, Mr. Dan Wagner and Mr. Paul Falcon. Ms. Kristin Card and Ms. Lori Milstein served as MS directors, and after 25 years of service, Mrs. Cooper retired and was succeeded by Ms. Lynn Falcon. While the faculty may have changed, the Drama Program continued to thrive. The slate of academic departments expanded and more than 40 productions were seen on Trapier’s stage. Trapier Theater had a significant upgrade to the stage lighting system with the replacement of the outdated auto-transformer dimming system with a state of the art, solid state lighting control system that included a thirty six channel two scene preset lighting board.
By contrast, the 90’s offered greater stability in the Drama program. Mrs. Witt served as the department chair for the entire decade. Mark Bishop served as the Technical Director from 1990 through 1999. Ms. Susan Chiang replaced Ms. Falcon in 1991 and served as the costume designer through 1998 and Ms. Milstein continued as the MS director for the entire decade. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of Trapier Theater in the fall of 1993 with a landmark production of Bertolt Brecht’s “A Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
The decade saw more renovations and changes in Trapier Theater. The renovation of the Lower School at St Albans necessitated bringing the scene shop from its location at the “top of the service road” to the Trapier stage. This involved an extensive renovation of the Trapier stage which included the removal of the architectural columnar walls on either side of the stage as well as the curved “panorama wall”. While there may have been challenges associated with having the shop onstage, the added flexibility in the space meant greater scenic opportunities. The thrust stage that covers the serpentine stairs was rebuilt (see photo). Outdated incandescent lighting instruments were replaced with the then current technology of halogen lamps and the addition of a digital control console added greatly to the artistic potential that could be achieved in stage lighting. With these updates and changes, Trapier Theater was poised to enter the 21st century!
The new millennium began with the retirement of Mrs. Witt in 2002. She served on the faculty for twenty eight years, directed 42 productions and worked with close to three thousand students in the Drama Program. She left a wonderful legacy of teaching, directing and caring for those students. Mr. Peter Saunders was hired as Mrs. Witt’s successor and he carried that legacy forward during the decade. Mr. Saunders was hired as the Director of Theater in a newly formed Performing Arts Department under the leadership of Mr. Ben Hutto as department chair. In 2003 Mr. Chris Snipe replaced Ms. Milstein as the LS director. The decade saw four technical directors: Ms. Kim Deane, Ms. Lori Devonshyre, Mr. Toby Clark, and the return of Mr. Bishop in 2008. And there were three Costume designers: Mrs. Rebecca Gallerizzo, Mrs. Kate Waters and Ms. Kathleen Leary.
After three decades of the same production schedule, the Drama Program shifted to a new schedule in 2005. The fall semester remained the same, but the schedule in the spring changed moving the US musical to the end of February, moving the LS spring play to Trapier Theater in April and adding an US Variety show in the end of April. The Variety showed featured scenes, song and dance and was a joint production between the Drama and Dance programs. In 2008 the Variety show transitioned again and a Dance program “Dance Gala” and a Drama Program “Festival of Student Directed One Act Plays” was established, offering our students greater opportunities in both programs. Mr. Saunders also rebranded the Drama Club as the Close Theater Company in a move to reinforce the inclusivity of the program. Major advances in theater technology included the replacement of the aging electrical infrastructure in the theater early in the decade including the addition of a state of the digital lighting console, and the implementation of a wireless microphone system to support our musical theater productions.
Along with these changes, the Trapier Theater underwent extensive renovations as part of the Marriott Hall renovation and construction project. The Drama Program packed up 40 years of activity in Trapier Theater and spent the next two years “on the road” as the major construction project was undertaken at STA (see photo). The 2007/2008 academic year saw the Drama Program return to its roots as the theatrical season was produced in Whitby Gym at NCS. It was fun to be back in that space, thinking about the earlier thespians who worked in there as well. The 2008/2009 season was produced in Procter Gym at NCS which allowed us to do a year of shows in the round, which was exciting for our students.
The Drama Program moved back into the renovated theater in the fall of 2009. With the scene shop relocated downstairs to the old office space (see picture), the stage was restored to its most open configuration ever. New seating was installed, the acoustical ceiling was removed, windows in the south wall were exposed, effective blackout shades were installed and the booth received a much needed renewal as well. As part of this project the stage was named the Brylawski Stage, recognizing the generous support of E. Fulton Brylawski ’42. How fortunate the Drama Program was to move back into this wonderful theatrical space!
The 2010’s have seen a shift in departmental organization. Mr. Saunders departed in 2011, and Mr. Bishop moved from the Technical Director position into the position of Theater Director, and Mr. Greg Lampasona was hired as Technical Director. Mr Bishop and Mr. Snipe now divide the directorial responsibilities with each directing in both the LS and US. Mr. Bishop established a chartered troupe of the International Thespian Society on the Close and the Close Theater Company became the Thespian Society. This change brought more structure and leadership to the student theater group and distinction levels are understood more clearly in the world of college admissions. The last major piece of the organizational change occurred in 2014 when the Drama Department formally became the Theater Department. As an academic program that is centered on the creation of theater it was felt that the renaming was appropriate. Also in 2014, Ms. Anne Liberman was hired as Costume Designer. In 2016 Mr. Bishop was named Department Chair as independent Theater and Music departments were established.
There have been two developments in technical theater technology during the 2010’s. In 2015 the Theater Department received a grant from the Parents’ Association that facilitated the shift from a halogen based lighting inventory to LED stage lighting equipment. Not only did this significantly lower the electrical usage in the theater, it also opened the door to a new period in lighting with all the potential and possibilities that LED lighting brings to theater. And in January of this year we moved from using an analog sound board to a console with digital functionality and memory capability. Another major step forward for our program and our students.