In 1958 — prodded by a student named Christopher Lloyd* — Staples High School English teacher Craig Matheson directed “You Can’t Take it With You.”
Staples Players was born.
In the 61 years since, the drama troupe has earned national — even international — renown. (Their original production of “War and Pieces” was included in a United Nations traveling exhibit.)
But Players was not Staples’ first drama group.
For decades, individual classes put on plays. They were modest affairs.
In 1950 — the year after the juniors and sophomores joined together to put on “Our Town” — the 12th, 11th and 10th grade classes combined to produce “Blithe Spirit.” Led by legendary English instructor V. Louise Higgins, they called themselves the Masque and Wig Club.
The entire cast included 7 students.
Because Staples — then located on Riverside Avenue (the current Saugatuck Elementary School) — had no auditorium, the play was staged at Bedford Junior High (today, Kings Highway Elementary).
Little is known about that early effort, or any that followed. But alert “06880” reader — and Staples grad/Players fan/producer Fred Cantor — dug up some photos.
Director V. Louise Higgins (foreground) and cast member Lucia Kimber.
The entire cast of “Blithe Spirit” (from left): Hope Collier, Jane Schmidt, Wendy Ayearst, Lee Moulton, Priscilla Planten, George Barton and Lucia Kimber.
The simple, 4-page program for “Blithe Spirit” notes:
By the time the present Sophomores are Seniors, if the club continues, they will be a reasonably well-trained group.
Perhaps even by that time the school will have some sort of drama department, for before any more real progress can be made, a speech teacher and proper facilities are needed.
Tonight, the curtain rises for Staples Players’ elaborate production of “Mamma Mia!” Choreography, acting, the pit, lighting, sets — all will be near Broadway-quality.
Thanks in part to the Masque and Wig Club, our high school indeed has “some sort of drama department.”
* Yes, that Christopher Lloyd
(Hat tip: Fred Cantor)
Half of the Masque and Wig Club program for “Blithe Spirit” …
The Bitter End calls itself “the oldest rock and roll club in New York City.” Since 1961, the classic red brick stage in the heart of Greenwich Village has hosted Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Gavin DeGraw, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Billy Crystal, Tommy James, Norah Jones, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and thousands more.
Including Madelyn Spera.
The Westporter has already played there twice, during Saturday open mic sessions. The first was last year, as a Bedford Middle School 8th grader. Now a Staples High School freshman, she performed again last month. It was a fundraiser to support music and art in underfunded schools.
Surrounded by School of Rock-type bands, Madelyn stood out as an acoustic guitarist. She also plays piano.
Madelyn Spera at the Bitter End.
Madelyn’s route to the Bitter End began in Westport. She started playing at Sweet Frog — the now-shuttered frozen yogurt shop next to Fresh Market.
Her repertoire includes ’80s pop songs, and originals. She wrote one of those songs — “Underneath It All” — about an issue she cares deeply about: positive body image.
Before she headed to the Bitter End, Madelyn knew little about the iconic club. But she looked it up online.
She learned that her idol Taylor Swift had played there. That was good enough for Madelyn.
The first time, she was nervous. But one of her songs made an audience member cry. She knew she belonged.
Bitter End bookers agreed. Madelyn will play there again, in late winter.
Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.
(Can’t wait until then to see Madelyn Spera? She’s part of the Bjorn ensemble in Staples Players’ upcoming production of “Mamma Mia!” Click here for information.)
There were many reasons David Roth and Kerry Long chose “Mamma Mia!” as Staples Players’ fall musical.
It’s a popular jukebox show with great music and non-stop laughs. Though ABBA was a ’70s band, the Broadway show debuted in 1999 and the film was released in 2008, teenagers in the cast and crew know it well. They — and audiences of all ages — love it.
But one of the most compelling reasons for Roth and Long — co-directors of the high school’s award-winning troupe — is that both of Players’ choreographers danced in “Mamma Mia!”‘s North American tour.
In 2010, Christopher Hudson Myers was cast as a swing. The next year, Rachel MacIsaac — who, in another key role, is Myers’ wife — joined the tour in the same role. Myers, meanwhile, was named dance captain.
In 2011 Myers joined the Broadway show. He covered the roles of Pepper and Eddie — and continued as dance captain — until the show closed in 2015.
The couple signed on as Players’ choreographers that year. It was only a matter of time before “Mamma Mia!” came to the Staples stage.
(From left) Annamaria Fernandez, Colin Konstanty, Ryan Porio, Sammy Guthartz, Owen Keaveny and tomaso Scotti perform. Benny Zack leaps. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Myers and MacIsaac bring great knowledge about details not in the script, Roth notes. (Players also enjoyed a visit last week from Felicia Finley, a lead in the Broadway production who chatted with the cast about the show.)
Some of Myers and MacIsaac’s choreography is “an homage to the original cast,” Roth adds. Other parts are unique to Players. The show — which opens November 15, and runs through November 23 — is recognizable to anyone who has seen the musical or film. But it’s also fully Staples’ own.
Roth and Long chose “Mamma Mia!” this year in part because they’ve got some very talentd dancers. Junior Jamie Mann (double-cast as Sky) studied at Alvin Ailey and the School of American Ballet. He danced with New York City Ballet in 3 productions, and as Billy Elliot in theaters from New Hampshire to Florida.
Senior Erin Lynch (double cast as Sophie) studied at Ballet Etudes in Norwalk for 7 years. Junior Camille Foisie (Donna) has trained in ballet since she was 3, and added other genres from New York to Trumbull.
Besides dancing, there is plenty of singing in “Mamma Mia!” (From left) David Corro, Anna Maria Fernandez, Camille Foisie, Tobey Patton, Jamie Mann, Erin Lynch, Samantha Webster, Sammy Guthartz. (Photo/Kerry Long)
“The dance numbers in ‘Mamma Mia!’ are highly energetic and athletic, with some very precise and technical dance mixed in,” says MacIsaac.
“We try to push the students beyond what they believe their limitations to be,” adds Myers.
It’s not only the actors, singers and dancers who have pushed beyond their limitations. The stage crew — under the direction of new tech director Jeff Hauser — has created an enormous, dynamic set. One of the highlights: a very cool turntable.
Audiences have learned that — whether it’s a foot-stomping musical, a Broadway classic or a serious show — Staples Players is far more than a high school drama group.
Anna Maria Fernandez and Benny Zack, in a tender (?) moment. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” sold so quickly, in fact, that Roth and Long added an eighth performance. That matinee — the show’s third — is set for Saturday, November 16 (3 p.m.).
“Take a Chance On Me,” ABBA sings toward the end of the show.
Audiences don’t have to take a chance on “Mamma Mia!” They know it’s already a winner.
(“Mamma Mia!” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, November 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, November 16, 17 and 23 at 3 p.m., and Thursday, November 21 at 7 p.m. The best seats now are for the November 16 matinee, and Thursday, November 21. For tickets, click here. Tickets are always available in the Staples High School lobby 30 minutes before showtime — first come, first served!)
Every Westporter knows the Tonys. The award — named for Antoinette Perry — is given in a number of categories, for excellence in Broadway theater.
You may not know the Jeffs. Honoring Joseph Jefferson, they’re the Tonys’ Chicago counterpart.
Scott Weinstein knows Jeff Awards. The 2006 Staples High School graduate has already earned 2 of them. On October 21, he’s up for a third.
Like so many alums in the theater world, Weinstein gained broad experience through Staples Players. He acted in “Urintetown,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Cabaret” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
He directed in the One-Act Festival, and was a master carpenter on tech.
At Northwestern University, Weinstein majored in theater and minored in political science. He acted and directed, in everything from “Noises Off” to Shakespeare.
Gradually — because “I was never a good enough actor for the director in my brain” — he focused on directing.
Scott Weinstein, at work.
It’s not an easy profession. “There’s a lot of hustle,” Weinstein notes. “You’re always working on 3 or 4 projects at once.”
He’s been fortunate to work consistently — and on shows he is passionate about.
Right out of college, he started a company called Buzz 22 with friends. It developed new work — “a very Chicago thing to do,” he notes. One of their shows was produced at Steppenwolf.
Weinstein was hired as resident director for the first national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet.” He handled the Chicago and Las Vegas productions, and one for Norwegian Cruise Lines.
He currently splits time between Chicago and New York. Right now he’s developing new plays, including a musical comedy about surviving the Dark Ages. (Hey, you never know…). He’s also working on a re-imagining of “South Pacific” for the Finger Lakes Music Festival.
Everything he does today has its roots at Staples, Weinstein says. That’s where he learned “the vocabulary for talking about theater, and telling stories.” Most fellow theater majors did not enter Northwestern with those backgrounds in acting, directing and set building, he says.
Whether he is developing new musicals or devising a modern take on a classic, Weinstein believes that “music is timeless. It connects us.”
He is excited about theater today. “Amazing new voices are pushing things in exciting new directions. Boundaries are expanding. It’s more representative of what we are, and what our country looks like.
“I get to work with great collaborators, and brilliant writers. I’m glad that theaters trust me to do bold takes.”
Last week, Weinstein returned to his alma mater. He spoke with David Roth’s theater classes about his career after Players, and life as a director.
Scott Weinstein (6th from right, back row) next to Staples Players director David Roth. They’re surrounded by current students — including future actors, directors and tech crew professionals. (Photo/Kerry Long)
“It was surreal,” he says of his visit. “I have such vivid memories of the Black Box, hearing professionals talk to us.”
Ahead for Weinstein: directing “Something Rotten” and “Grease” in Chicago, and “Million Dollar Quartet” in Phoenix.
Plus, of course, that Jeff Awards ceremony. He’s been nominated for “Noises Off,” at the Windy City Playhouse.
David and Amy Mandelbaum moved to Westport 14 years ago. This fall their daughter Julia enters her senior year at The Westminster School of the Arts at Rider University, earning a BFA in musical theater. Their son Sam will attend Chapman University, Dodge School of Film, studying screenwriting, TV writing and production.
Both thrived at Staples High School, particularly in the Staples Players drama program. Sam graduated last month, then starred in his final production: the summer show “Back to the ’80s.” When it was over, David reflected on the experience of being a “Players parent.” His letter to fellow parents is worth sharing. He writes:
Having just attended my final show as a Staples Players parent, I’m still processing what this all means. If you will indulge me, I’d like to share a few thoughts that have been percolating. I know many others are going through the same experience, have gone through it before us, or eventually will go through it.
Sam and Julia Mandelbaum.
It’s been an amazing 7 years for Amy and me, starting with Julia’s first ensemble role in “Oklahoma!” and concluding with Sam rocking the stage (in a tubular mullet) one last time. In between there have been countless moments of joy, frustration, pride, anxiety – in short, a microcosm of what it is to be parent.
But seeing our kids grow in so many ways over these past 7 years has been a gift. We have seen them learn to persevere, work hard, sacrifice, collaborate, take direction, deal with and move beyond setbacks and inevitable social conflicts, lead, communicate, create, multitask, plan, manage very full calendars, and of course express themselves with increasing confidence through their art and talents for all the world to see.
It’s been quite a journey seeing that growth, and we attribute much of it to their Players experience and the uniquely special community that Players is.
Too many people to mention have contributed mightily to the organization that is the pride of Westport. David Roth, Kerry Long, Luke Rosenberg, Don Rickenback, Chris Stanger, Rachel MacIsaac, Rhonda Paul and Michele Wrubel, most especially, have lent their great talents and time to create an environment that is nurturing, while also demanding the very best from the kids.
Director David Roth with (from left) Georgia Wright and Sophie Rossman. They’re 2 of the many actors he’s worked with over his Staples career. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Because of them, our kids have had the opportunity to be a part of consistently outstanding productions year in and year out. We are further privileged to live in a broader Westport community that fully supports and embraces the arts.
The Players community would not be what it is, however, without the deep involvement of parents who have volunteered a considerable amount of their time and resources, while also being there when needed for rides and generously opening their homes to the kids for cast parties, field days and the like.
Players is so much more than the exceptional product on stage. It is a community of wonderful families and kids who gravitate to it. And we feel blessed to have gotten to know so many of them over the years.
Julia Mandelbaum (center) in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
Now the somewhat sad part as we end our journey as Players parents. I know all of our kids will go off to do great things in or outside of the arts. We will be there to support them as best we can through their many successes (and a fair share of inevitable setbacks, from which the most growth ultimately arises). Still, I recognize that we are unlikely to ever replicate the unique experience we have had as Players parents.
Over these past 7 years, the immense pride we have felt has not been limited to just our own kids, but also to their friends, who we have come to love.
Throughout these years we have shared the many joys and frustrations with other Players parents, who have become dear friends. Even if we are fortunate enough to see our kids shine in their next chapters, it won’t quite be the same as the bond of community in which those future experiences occur will not be nearly as strong.
Sam Mandelbaum in “Legally Blonde.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
In other words, it is not seeing our kids and their best friends on stage that we will miss most. But rather, we will miss being part of this incredible Players community that has become so important to and intertwined in our lives.
On that note, Amy and I will soon have to adapt to an entirely new schedule that does not revolve around fall, winter and Black Box shows and one-acts, and Orphenians and choral performances. I know that could open up some fun new possibilities for how we will spend our time. At this point, however, it’s a daunting prospect that we will need to come to grips with in a few short months.
Nonetheless, as I look back on these past 7 wonderful years, I also look forward. I am excited to see what college and life beyond has in store for our two kids and all the other Players grads. We also intend to continue to be supportive of Staples Players, albeit in a different capacity. You may not see us at 4 or 6 (or more) performances per show, but we will absolutely continue to be excited audience members of future Players productions.
So, at the risk of being too presumptuous, even though we are as of today no longer Players parents, we will still forever view ourselves as part of the Players family.
Staples Players’ summer show is “Back to the ’80s.”
The jukebox musical — a mashup of plots like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “The Breakfast Club,” with songs like “Love Shack,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” plus bad hair and acid-washed jeans — is great entertainment.
Corey Palmer narrates the show, from 2019. He looks back on himself as a geeky boy in love with the girl next door, growing up and going to high school in 1984.
That’s the same year Players director David Roth graduated from Staples. So who better to play the narrator than Roth himself?
That’s one of the special twists audiences will enjoy when “Back to the ’80s” opens this Friday evening (July 12). Performances are also set for Saturday afternoon and evening, and a Sunday matinee.
Director David Roth with (from left) Georgia Wright and Sophie Rossman. When he’s not working with the actors, Roth joins them onstage. (Photo/Kerry Long)
“It’s a fun fit,” says Roth, making his first appearance on the Staples stage since graduating 35 years ago. Back in the day, he starred as the MC in “Cabaret,” and shows like “Pippin” and “I Do! I Do!” He also directed “Chicago,” and served as vice president of tech his senior year.
There have been plenty of technical advancements in the 3 1/2 decades since Roth was a student. He and co-director Kerry Long have taken Players — always one of the best high school drama troupes around — to the next, near-Broadway level.
But, Roth says, the essence of Players has not changed. “It’s still a group of people who come together to put on a show,” he says.
Remember “Love Shack”? These Staples Players dance to the B-52s’ song. (Photo/Kerry Long)
And who have tons of fun doing it. Rehearsal last week was filled with a great, talented cast of dozens — from rising freshmen to Players alum like Charlie Zuckerman (taking a year off from college, to audition) and Jill Gault (in her 2nd year of the Ithaca College acting program).
They sang and danced their way through “Material Girl,” “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Come On Eileen.”
All are ’80s songs from “Back to the ’80s.” None of the cast had been alive then, of course.
Except director/narrator David Roth.
Not to be confused with David Lee Roth.
(“Back to the ’80s” will be performed Friday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 13 at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. Click here for tickets and more information.)
The very 80s-ish cast of Staples Players’ summer show. (Photo/Kerry Long)
David Roth has acted in 3 productions of “Our Town.”
In 1980 — the summer he moved to Westport, as a rising Staples High School freshman — his introduction to his new town’s drama community came via Thornton Wilder’s classic play.
A few years later in college, he was cast in it again. The third time was as an adult, with the Wilton Playshop.
Kerry Long was introduced to “Our Town” as a Staples student. English teacher Karl Decker traditionally read it to his senior class.
Roth and Long now co-direct Staples Players. But in over 60 years, the nationally recognized organization has produced the play only once.
That was in 1962. Craig Matheson directed, 4 years after founding Players.
This Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26), Roth and Long will stage “Our Town” again.
Both love it.
“It’s brilliant,” Roth says. “It so well captures the human experiences we all go through.”
Much has changed in 57 years. Besides the auditorium, there’s now a smaller Black Box theater.
That’s where Players will stage “Our Town,” from Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26).
But much has not changed.
The set is spare. Props are minimal. Very little separates the audience from the actors, or both from life’s experiences.
Emily (Sophie Rossman) and George (Nick Rossi) at the soda shop. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Players’ 2019 cast wears contemporary clothing. Though the play is set in 1938 — and the “play within a play” covers the years 1901 to 1913 — Roth and Long want their audience to focus on the timelessness of the message, not its time frame.
The directors make good use of the Black Box’s intimacy and versatility. The audience sits on stage. They flank the actors, so the action happens both in front and behind.
Roth and Long have loved “Our Town” for years. They are excited to introduce a new generation of performers — and theater-goers — to it.
Most of the teenage actors knew of of the play, Roth says. But few of them actually “knew” it.
Now they appreciate it as much as their directors do.
That’s the magic of theater. Of “Our Town.”
And of Staples Players.
(“Our Town” will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 23, 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m. Online tickets are sold out, but a limited number will be available half an hour before curtain, at the door.)
When he was in Staples Players, audiences knew August Laska as an actor. His roles included “Guys and Dolls,” “Little. Shop of Horrors,” “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line.”
But — like many members of the high school drama program — he learned about many other aspects of theater. He directed a studio production, “Museum.” He headed up the publicity team. He watched his friends take on projects like fundraising and outreach.
After graduating in 2013, August majored in film and media at Middlebury College. He learned how to communicate with mass audiences, and discovered the connection between movies and Broadway.
While many of his classmates joined the “Middlebury to Goldman Sachs pipeline,” he headed to Los Angeles. He worked for Snapchat and loved the West Coast, but realized technology was not for him.
A bit over a year ago, August joined Disney Theatrical Productions in New York. He enjoys his marketing work there immensely.
Thanks to his college internships in Broadway offices, an outside job recently came his way. Though he’s still in his mid-20s, August is now a co-producer.
He’s working on “Broadway Bounty Hunter.” The Off-Broadway musical — written by Tony-nominated writer (“Be More Chill”) Joe Iconis — is set to open in July.
So after his full-time, daytime gig, August spends his nights raising money to make sure that happens.
Every show needs money. There are directors, designers and creatives to hire; space to rent; sets to build — all before one ticket is sold.
There is no handbook or Wiki article on how to be a producer. August is learning by doing — and watching those who have already done it.
Fortunately, co-producing fits his skill set. And he appreciates growing up in a community that values the arts.
He’s contacting some of those Westporters right now, while raising capital for “Broadway Bounty Hunter.” (He’s also involved a Broadway show opening this summer — but he can’t share those details just yet.)
“Investing in theater is risky,” August admits. “Not every show is ‘Hamilton.’ But when it is, you make back your investment big time.
“It’s a long journey though. Its not a one-time lottery ticket.”
Show people are special people. Not everyone can act on stage.
August Laska did, at Staples. Now his action takes place behind the scenes.
But co-producers get awards beyond tickets to opening night.
“You know all those people you see on stage at the Tonys?” he asks. “They’re producers. They get a statuette too.”
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