Stage

Stage: Present Company Inclusive

The Drama Studio has new, young leadership and a wider vision

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Thursday, October 27, 2011
Christ Rohmann Photo
Mat Busler and Ariel Rothberg

One day last month, Kyle Kate Dudley had a meeting with the vice president of a large Springfield corporation. She was there in her new role as managing director of the Drama Studio, the Springfield youth theater and conservatory, pitching an idea for expanding the company's sponsorship of her organization.

"I sat down and he said, 'Well, you're vastly underqualified for your position, aren't you?'" Dudley recalls. But she's laughing. "He ended up giving me one of the best pep talks I've ever had."

At 25, Dudley is barely one-third the age of the Studio's founder, Steve Hays, who established the organization the year she was born and who retired from active leadership last summer. "After running the Drama Studio for 25 years, he had really big shoes to fill," Dudley says. Hays' all-encompassing duties have now been triaged among three young professionals with longstanding connections to the organization.

Dan Morbyrne, a veteran teacher and actor, now has overall artistic responsibility for the performance season and directs most of the productions, including this month's season-opener, Present Company Excluded. Amelia Hays-Rivest (Steve Hays' daughter) runs the teaching program, and Dudley is in charge of "development, marketing, bookkeeping and all that administrative stuff." Together, they oversee the work of nine part-time teachers and other staff.

Sitting in her poster-lined office in the Studio's headquarters, tucked into the rear of St. Barnabas/All Saints Church in Forest Park, Dudley says she's only a little daunted by her promotion—she was previously Hays' assistant. "It's got to be day-by-day, but I'm trying not to get mired in the hour-to-hour stuff and keep a long-range vision," she says. And standing in the founder's big shoes, she already has some big ideas about the Studio's future.

Like securing a building of their own, which would boost the number and scope of the Studio's programs as well as its profile in the Springfield arts community. In the near term, Dudley wants to expand community outreach, particularly to make the participant base more racially and economically diverse. Currently, the Studio serves over 200 students aged nine to 18, from Springfield and other area towns. Classes in acting, scene study, stage combat and other theater skills feed into five in-house productions and three touring shows each season.

"The Drama Studio is a nonprofit afterschool program whose mission is to uplift the adolescent experience through a conservatory theater program," Dudley quotes from the organization's mission statement. The purpose, she says, "is to find young people who are not necessarily enriched and uplifted in whatever experience they're having at home or in school, and give them a place to discover themselves." That's especially important for kids who don't have a lot of other enrichment opportunities.

Her immediate goal is to add a full-time outreach coordinator to the staff—specifically, a person of color. The Studio's present staff is overwhelmingly white, while the participant population, in a city rapidly approaching "majority-minority" status, is currently less than one-third students of color, although this year's crop of new students is considerably more diverse than has been the case historically.

"We can't expect students without role models to wander through our doors," Dudley observes. "Even if someone can culturally relate to where you are, you need someone who can visually relate. That's important. The whole idea is to feel really comfortable here. We do a lot for students that isn't just theater," she explains. "What really inspires me is the students who come into my office and say, 'I need help with this homework assignment,' or 'I need to talk to you about colleges 'cause I don't know anybody else who's done it recently.'"

Dudley is in an ideal position to field these questions. She's a child of Springfield, born and bred here, educated in the city's public schools before going for a degree at NYU and working and studying in Africa and Europe. She returned two years ago to become Steve Hays' assistant at the Drama Studio, where she herself had been a student for nine years and later worked as a teacher in its summer programs.

Not Just Kids' Stuff

The Drama Studio's touring shows are aimed at elementary school students. Currently on the road is The Shel Game, based on stories by the quirky children's author Shel Silverstein. Another kid-friendly production, The Snow Queen, will be performed at CityStage in December.

But the mainstage plays at the Studio's home base delve into topics you wouldn't necessarily expect of a student production. Case in point: this season's opening show, a true story from the Holocaust.

Present Company Excluded traces the lives of young Herbert Roth and the five Jewish families living in the German farming village of Roth (no relation) in the early years of Nazi rule. We meet 12-year-old Herb in 1936—a kid whose passion is soccer, which he plays with his Christian friends, and whose only complaint is having to learn unintelligible Hebrew phrases by rote for his bar mitzvah.

His troubles deepen as anti-Semitic prejudice filters into the schoolroom, where one of the teachers spouts Nazi propaganda about "Jewish vermin," adding, for Herb's benefit, "Present company excluded, of course." The play follows the steadily increasing exclusion and demonizing of Jews, which finally forces the town's Jewish families to try to escape—only some of them successfully.

The playwright, Drama Studio instructor Doug Foresta, was inspired by a photo exhibit on the Jews of Roth, A Reason to Remember. First shown at the Hatikvah Holocaust Education and Resource Center in Springfield, it's now part of the permanent collection of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at UMass.

Foresta says he conflated some real-life characters for his script "and played with some of the timeline." He also created opportunities for humor, "because without it the play would be unbearably painful. But most of the things in the play are true."

That includes a chilling moment at the first-act climax, when Herb is forced to stand to attention in school and wave the swastika flag as his Nazi Jugend classmates shout "Heil Hitler!" When that moment occurs, says Dan Morbyrne to his cast during a rehearsal of the show, "I want a quick blackout and no one in the audience breathing."

Morbyrne is directing this and four other plays at the Drama Studio this season. Like Dudley, he says he has had to "hit the ground running" in taking on the Studio's artistic leadership. "My head is buzzing with ideas and lists of things to do. It's busy, but it's good," he remarks during a break in rehearsal. Then he turns to give notes to the cast, which includes adult guest actors as well as students. The Studio usually employs age-appropriate casting, instead of asking kids to play parts beyond their age and experience.

"Ariel," Morbyrne calls to the young actor playing Herb. "Good energy in that first scene, when you're trying to jump into the conversation between your father and grandfather. Everyone, across the board, all your entrances can have more energy."

Ariel Rothberg, a Springfield native who attends the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, says the "Jewish family dynamics" in the play, as well as the comical moments during Herb's bar mitzvah studies, jibe with his own experience. He's been at the Drama Studio since fourth grade, when he took an introductory acting class "and got hooked." He's primarily interested in comedy, he says, and the role of Herb "is different than anything I've ever done. It's a very serious part, very dark material. I feel I've really grown as an actor from working on it."

Students take not just onstage roles in Drama Studio productions, but also handle most of the technical duties. This show's stage manager is 17-year-old Lucy Gouvin, now in her sixth year with the program. Seated in the tech booth overlooking the stage, she says, "What I love about the Drama Studio is that it really gives kids an opportunity to push themselves." She's taken that opportunity, not only to master technical skills but to join the board of directors this year, restoring a previous policy of youth representation in the organization's leadership.

Sitting to one side in the Studio's intimate 60-seat theater, Kyle Kate Dudley watches some of the rehearsal before heading homeward at the end of a 12-hour day. On her way out, she stops to reflect on her first few months in the Studio's buck-stops-here chair—and the ribbing she took from that businessman last month.

"Okay, I'm maybe technically underqualified," she admits. "I don't have a master's degree in nonprofit management, but with all my knowledge of the Studio and everything I've been learning from Steve for the last two years, I might as well.

"One of the things that's interesting for me in Springfield arts and culture," she muses, "is that it's very siloed, very disconnected and very political. That's an interesting thing for me to navigate." She's working to establish deeper connections in the city, including teaching-artist residencies in the public schools, like her alma mater, Central High. "I will probably teach some of those residencies," she says, "because I'm a Springfield kid and these schools totally make sense to me. I can represent."

Present Company Excluded runs Oct.21-23 and 28-30 at the Drama Studio, 41 Oakland St., Springfield, (413) 739-1983, dramastudio.org.

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