The fine art of putting on a showApr 04, 2017 12:37PM ● By Steven Hoffman
In the auditorium of Middletown High School last month, the buzz of a dozen conversations, the drone of an orchestra tuning up, the shouted directions on stage, the bubble of laughter and the zing of energy was familiar to anyone who has ever been part of putting on a show.
The first full dress rehearsal for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at the school was typical of theater being made anywhere – semi-organized chaos, with dozens of people on stage and behind the scenes pulling together toward the moment when the lights come up and the audience sees the result of months of hard work.
Sitting in the empty auditorium before rehearsal started, Michael Husni was showing the relaxed confidence of a man who has been on stage many times, and has gotten through just about any crisis a teen actor has brought to him. And he was still smiling.
Husni grew up in Middletown and remembers his middle-school stage debut in a scene from “Romeo & Juliet.”
“I was an awkward seventh grader, playing Romeo,” he said, smiling. “I've never had a fear of being on stage. That's why my parents pushed me towards it. I was the kid that would be out in the middle of the dance floor at weddings. I don't even know if it's confidence – I think I just don't care what people think,” he added, laughing.
On the stage as a freshman at Middletown High School, Husni showed the same kind of confidence, appearing in classic shows such as “Mame,” “Guys & Dolls,” “West Side Story” and “The Music Man.”
“Voni Perrine, who is the assistant principal here now, was the musical director back then,” Husni said. “Amanda Chas and I are both Middletown graduates of varying years. Voni was very happy to see that we could take over the program.”
Husni went to the University of Delaware, where he took part in student theater productions in the Harrington Theatre Arts Company and the E-52 group, double majoring in Spanish education, and English with a concentration in drama. After attending Queen Mary University of London for his master's degree, he returned to this area and was hired at the high school. “I was very happy to come back and be a part of my community again,” he said, “especially because I knew this stage so well.”
The season is a busy one, with a mainstage play in the fall, a touring puppet production in the winter, a big musical in the spring, and then a spring season for the puppet theater.
“I've always been fascinated with the work of Jim Henson,” Husni said, “He's the guy everybody goes to for puppetry, but when I was in London, I saw a bunch of productions and I was fascinated with the way that inanimate objects can become anything. Even as a kid, I was always doing plays with my stuffed animals.”
Eight years ago, Husni started a class at Middletown that has students construct their own puppets, develop skills with them and then write and perform a show at local elementary schools and daycare centers in the winter months. The theme recently has been anti-bullying. “We'll do up to six or eight shows in one day,” Husni said. The students not only learn how to build durable, expressive puppets, but standing on stage with them – where the puppeteers can clearly be seen – is a tremendous confidence boost for teens.
“Often, when a student gets behind a puppet, that's when they begin to feel really comfortable being in front of 200 kids. I tell them, 'As long as you make the puppet interesting, and you put all your energy into the puppet, the audience isn't even going to look at you.'” Husni said.
The school offers a rich variety of ways for students to create, both on stage and behind the scenes. There are two levels of stagecraft classes, in which students learn how to build sets that are both visually appealing and sturdy. There's a musical theater class offered in the fall, and those students take part in the spring musicals. And there are three or four levels of acting classes, depending on demand, that take students from the introductory level to advanced scene work and public performances.
For “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a classic musical set in the 1920s, “There are about 100 students involved, between actors and stage crew,” Husni said.
The school has a policy of involving every student who comes to auditions, either in speaking roles, chorus positions or behind the scenes. “As long as you audition, we will find a spot for you,” Husni said.
The auditorium is a manageable size – just over 700 seats – and the audience is made up of more than just parents of the students on stage, Husni said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that the community starts buzzing about the quality of our productions. We've had audience members whose students were part of Middletown High School theater way back when, and now they come back and want to see the shows. People know that Middletown has been putting on really good productions for a long time. I think we're at 26 or 27 productions that we've put on. That's just the musicals.”
While Middletown is a strong school for football, Husni said, they are also know for a rich and varied arts program. “The school district sees the value in it,” he said. “They want to find more reasons for students to stay in our district. We support the arts.”
Operating a program at this level isn't cheap, Husni said. Putting on a show like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” costs about $10,000, which includes performance rights, paying staff members, and possibly buying props and costumes that can't be found in the school's extensive collection of costumes or whipped up by a parent at home. “We have some parent volunteers who are fiends when it comes to sewing,” Husni said, smiling.
When a student comes to a theater class or auditions, Husni said, “the first thing they get is a sense of family. They know that we are all part of the work. Even though they might be terrified, by the time they're done, they're confident in their abilities. What a lot of kids get out of it is having that sense of dedication, that idea of working towards a goal. When the students get to play characters and build these sets, sometimes they build something that, in the long run, becomes bigger than what they had perceived themselves as being. They learn to trust each other.”
Up on stage, Ariana Gaston was keeping things running smoothly behind the scenes. “I've always loved art, but I wasn't able to take art classes in middle school or high school. My pathway was environmental science, so I wasn't able to do both,” she said. Invited by friends to come and help paint some sets when she was a freshman, Gaston is now “an eight-show senior,” meaning she has been part of every show.
“It's been a crazy ride,” she said, smiling. “From learning from the seniors before me, to adapting to situations backstage, like pants ripping, or pearls spilling over the stage. I feel like I've had a potential for leadership, so being involved in stage crew, and the directors giving me the opportunity to rise up and be a leader, has helped me achieve that. Sometimes, having those inspirational people in your life can really bring you out of your shell and give you an opportunity to stand up and be a leader.”
For junior Kinme Reeves, who had a major role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” theater captured his heart in sixth grade in a school production of “Snake in the Grass.”
“I've been in all three shows here,” he said. “This is one of my biggest roles that I wanted to land. I want to do theater in college, but maybe not as a profession. I just love the music and dances in this show. This is what drew me to Middletown. I came here to see 'Guys and Dolls' and 'State Fair' when I was younger, and I was like, 'Wow.'”
In a room down the hall from the auditorium, junior Hannah Munzert was being fitted for her 1920s wig. She was cast as Millie in the show, and beamed at the prospect of being the main character.
“My family is really big into theater, and my mom and I have always sung this show. It's always been one of my favorites,” she said. “I do chorus and I was just in All-State Chorus. I've been doing theater since I was 4.”
Munzert said that theater “helps with self-confidence. I think it's really important for people my age to have this outlet. I'm really blessed that I get to be a part of it.”
In college, “I want to continue doing arts and music, and for the rest of my life,” she said, crediting her directors “for inspiring me and everyone else in the cast with their enthusiasm. Their enthusiasm is what draws people in and makes them want to be a part of something special.”
Back on the stage, with the show not yet started and a possible ending time of around midnight, Husni was up on a hydraulic lift, trying to steady a piece of scenery that was suspended on wires. The Art Deco-style piece added a lot to the scenic design, but it was swaying and needed to be stabilized so it didn't become a distraction to the audience. No fan of heights, Husni was high in the light rigging anyway, doing his best.
A student walked out and asked, “Mr. Husni, how do you want my hair?'” Glancing down while he kept working on the set piece, Husni gave the young man a few pointers. That kind of multi-tasking is what makes theater happen.
Having guided so many students through the long hours of preparation for performing, Husni said, “By closing night, for those kids who are seniors, it's the same feeling that we get at graduation when teachers watch those kids walk across the stage. That's a proud moment for us, because there are some kids who have journeyed so far. They start out having no clue, but they have developed into leaders who are going to go off into the real world. Whether they pursue the arts or not, they will make really big contributions. They will do something really incredible for the world.”