Despite Public-School Funding Crisis, Local High School Theater Soars

Generation 'Glee' takes Washington high school theater programs to new heights.
Ballard High School, which mounted 'Les Misérables' in March, is among the local schools that produce ambitious, award-worthy musicals year after year.
A handful of teens scurry around the stage in various early-1800s getups, while another group of kids, dressed in black, busily tend to props, lighting and wireless microphones. In the background, the musicians tune up, as theater director Shawn Riley barks directives.
It is March 7, one week until showtime for Ballard High School’s production of Les Misérables, and, typical for dress rehearsals, the chaos is kicking in. 
Then, Diego Roberts Buceta, playing Jean Valjean, begins to sing his second-act solo, “Bring Him Home,” and time stands still. Could this resplendent sound really be coming from a high school senior who, up until ninth grade, was more focused on playing soccer? More scenes play out, and as the voices, the musicians and the actors blend their talent-fueled skills, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary high school musical. 
But then, there’s nothing ordinary about the musical theater programs at many Seattle-area high schools. In addition to Ballard High School’s highly regarded program, Roosevelt High School, in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, has built a robust performing arts department, as has Kentridge High School in Kent, along with an array of schools in every corner of the state. 
Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre celebrates the exceptional productions launched by schools like these at its annual 5th Avenue Awards: Honoring High School Musical Theater. This year’s ceremony—The 5th Avenue’s 15th—will be held June 12 at Benaroya Hall. 
Call the awards the Tonys for teens. More than 90 high schools from across the state compete in the event, which 2,000 students, instructors and fans attend. Like the Tony Awards ceremony, the evening opens with a grand musical production (two students from each school participate) and recognizes schools in categories that include outstanding musical, actor, actress, direction, choreography and costume design. The award? A statue, of course.
The 5th Avenue’s producing artistic director, Bill Berry, began the program so that Washington state theater kids could enjoy the kinds of accolades and awards typically doled out to school athletes. “We’re happy we can do our part to focus on these kids for one night,” says Berry. Over the course of a school year, evaluators—all theater professionals—attend from 12 to 30 shows each and send every school feedback on its production. “The event connects young performers to each other—and gives them a boost of confidence,” Berry says. “They feel validated for something they love.”
Ballard High School has won multiple awards at the 5th Avenue event, and has been nominated for best musical four times. “Everyone is working toward that night,” says Riley.
And they’re working hard. Buceta, Ballard’s Jean Valjean, spends eight hours a day rehearsing. Everyone in the musical—more than 100 students, including those in the orchestra, cast and crew—convenes in the school’s theater each day after classes. Some come on weekends to build sets. Others design lighting. All of them, says Riley, “are here because they want to be here.”
Photo by Hayley Young
Anya Jones, who played one of the Women of the Barricade in Ballard High School's production of Les Miserables, finishes up her makeup in a space crowded with performers.
That sentiment is echoed by the teens involved in the Roosevelt High School musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. The 140 students who work on the show, which ran May 25–June 4 (their productions often miss the mid-May deadline for the 5th Avenue Awards program), do much of their prep in class. 
That’s because Roosevelt, much like the mythical high school in the 1980s classic film Fame, features a theater department that’s extraordinarily deep in course offerings. There’s a class in playwriting, directing, script analysis, costume design and dance. Guest artists from Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) pay visits, and kids who enroll in “Book-It” learn techniques from Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre. The season includes Dramafest, a festival of one-act plays directed by students; Roughwriters, student-written and -performed plays directed by SCT professionals; the musical—and more. 
Lydia Ippolito, a Roosevelt senior, plays the sidekick, Cookie, in Nice Work. The school is “known for putting on high-caliber shows,” she says. She has acted, sung and danced in them since she was a freshman. Auditions are rigorous, says Ippolito, “but that competitive air brings people who are passionate.” 
The arts, and particularly the high school musical, are deeply embedded in the school’s culture, says Roosevelt’s theater director, Ben Stuart, who took over after legendary director Ruben Van Kempen retired two years ago. Van Kempen, Roosevelt’s theater director and arts educator for 37 years, is widely credited with developing the school’s popular, highly acclaimed program. “It’s not uncommon to have football players and cheerleaders try out—and tell their friends to do it,” says Stuart, who encourages his students to go to festivals, see work being done by other schools and attend Seattle-area shows. “Our kids come back inspired, and that makes them work harder.”
And thanks to what Stuart calls the Hamilton effect, Roosevelt’s musicals have become more inclusive and diverse. “There are kids of color, low-income kids, others with disabilities,” says Stuart. “We cast nontraditionally; we are blowing up the idea that you can’t play a part because you look a certain way.”
Few high school musicals can claim to showcase as much diversity as Kentridge High School’s production of The Wiz, which ran May 3–13. “Our version has a white Scarecrow, an Asian Tin Man, a black Lion and black Wicked Witch—and the Munchkins are all over the board,” says drama teacher and artistic director Jennifer Grajewski. 
In the past decade, the student population at Kentridge, in the Kent School District, has shifted dramatically—from 75 percent Caucasian to a majority-minority school, she notes. “The change here has been rapid,” says Grajewski. “As Seattle became more expensive, people began moving out.” At one time, 15 percent of Kentridge students were on the free or reduced-price lunch program; that number has jumped to 30 percent, she says. 
While other high school drama programs attract kids with dance or music backgrounds, says Grajewski, “I don’t get any of these.” Yet the school turns out stellar shows. In fact, last year, Kentridge won the “Outstanding Musical” prize at the 5th Avenue Awards ceremony for its production of Hairspray—and was nominated for 14 other awards. 
The school stages musicals that “speak to the community,” says Grajewski. Hairspray deals with racial integration. Bring It On, the school’s 2015 musical, addresses stereotyping, discrimination and what winning really means.
And for some Kentridge students, the theater program is a haven. Many of them live in difficult home situations, says Grajewski. “These are not privileged kids; some would be on the street. This becomes a home, a safe place to land. It saves them.”
Photo by Hayley Young
Kentridge High School cast members for The Wiz, from left, Chandler McBride (Dorothy), Jason Hardy (Scarecrow), and Jason Bui (Tinman).
What makes these high school musical programs, well, sing? One common denominator: the standout directors, choreographers and choral leaders who make the magic happen. 
“When you put together a team that’s passionate about the arts you are doing, the kids latch on to that,” says Courtney Rowley, Ballard High School choir director. Instructors look for—and expect—excellence, she says. “The kids step up and rise to the occasion.”
“We’re lucky,” says Meg Shepherd, who played Fantine in Les Misérables. She chose Ballard High School for its performing arts program—and its teachers. “They are beyond talented.” And they’re devoted. “I eat, live and dream this stuff,” says Riley, Ballard’s theater director.

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