Ninth-Graders Dominate Cast of Valley Arts Academy’s First Major Production
Since its debut on Broadway in 1960, “Bye Bye Birdie” has been performed at hundreds if not thousands of high schools across the country. But the production opening May 12 at the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills may be one of the few in history where ninth-graders make up 75 percent of the 32-person cast.
“Some high schools don’t even cast ninth-graders,” explained Robin Share, theater arts teacher at the Valley Academy, who is directing the show.
At the new campus, however, the class of 2012 is absent, allowed by an LAUSD directive to graduate with their friends, and more than 500 of the 850 students are freshmen; the rest are sophomores and juniors. Ninth-graders attending places where the typical high school hierarchy prevails – upper classes rule -- can only look with envy at the happy predicament of their peers at the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Still, any high school with “arts” in the title generates community excitement around the quality of the big spring production, not to mention other plays, musical performances, visual art openings, dance numbers and similar events that take place on campus. The majority of Share’s cast may be only 13 or 14 and new to the stage, but the audience will expect them to sing and dance as if they were 17 and 18-year-old veterans.
“People hear the word ‘arts’ and they think the Pantages (Theatre),” said Share.
Having taught theater arts in the LAUSD for 13 years, including Van Nuys High School from 1983 to 1993, Share is accustomed to challenges of various kinds, including transforming a cast of high school students with little stage experience into a smoothly functioning unit.
For example, there was the production that opened on April 29th, 1992, the first night of the LA Riots. Since the school at that time included many students who were bused in from parts of the city impacted by looting, burning, and gun fire, Share recalls parents literally driving to campus and pulling kids off-stage, personally accounting for the safety of their own children.
Although the show did not go on that night, or the next several, Share later had her students take their experiences and feelings during the riots and transform them into a theater piece, which they performed at a variety of venues, including the Pantages Theatre.
Another group at Van Nuys did a project that involved interviewing students at the school who were recent immigrants to the United States. “We took all the transcripts and turned it into a play,” said Share. “The kids had to have faith that it would work out in the end.”
She will encourage that same feeling with the current cast of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Her original recommendation was to stage a different show, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a one-act musical comedy that debuted on Broadway in 2005. Share felt that the far fewer characters and more confined stage space of “Putnam” were better suited to her students.
But the director was overruled by others, who felt that a new academy of the arts should announce its arrival with a big, bustling show that has been popular for generations. And that’s how “Bye, Bye Birdie,” which is based on the public response to Elvis Presley getting drafted into the army in 1958, was chosen. Share said she intends to direct a production of “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the school, perhaps as early as next year.
One week prior to the auditions for “Birdie,” Share conducted a workshop focused exclusively on the show, which included going through the script and parts of the music with prospective cast members. Typically, actors do this level of preparation on their own, but Share believes that with high school students, the extra work reaps significant benefits.
“I always want to get the best auditions out of kids,” she explained. “By the end (of the workshop) they kind of knew what they were doing.”
As it happened, she cast all 32 students who showed up for the audition. Share is rehearsing the cast four afternoons per week, over six weeks, with an occasional Saturday rehearsal as well.
Despite the pressure to produce a quality show, at a new arts high school, with a younger-than-usual cast, Share as always will derive great satisfaction from seeing the cast come together into a cohesive whole. She hopes the audience feels the same.
“It’s completely thrilling watching the kids working and learning,” she said.
*Photo caption: Students at the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills perform “Bye Bye Birdie.”
By: Tom Waldman
Posted: April 27, 2012