No more 8th-grade field trip to Guilderland musical

— From Fred Heitkamp’s Facebook page

Star of the show: Leslie LaGuardia, seen here as Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1976, says that an eighth-grade field trip to see a Guilderland Players’ musical at the high school changed her life.

GUILDERLAND — Some former Guilderland Players who have gone on to careers related to performance and entertainment are up in arms to learn that the tradition of taking the entire eighth-grade class to the high school to see a free performance of the spring musical by the Guilderland Players has now been called off.

Instead, only the students involved in the middle-school dramatic club, Mask, will go.

There are 130 or 140 children in MASK this year, including those on the stage crew, said Farnsworth Middle School Principal Michael Laster. They span grades six through eight, and the field trip would be open to all of them.

There are 408 students in the eighth-grade class.

High school principal Thomas Lutsic told The Enterprise Wednesday that the committee that recommended this change will meet again on Friday. “We’ll reevaluate then,” he said. “It’s not too late to have the whole grade come out.”

Lutsic said that this decision was made “sometime after” the last annual field trip, which was in March 2016, “so maybe by April of last year.”

Communication about the decision could have been handled better, he said.

The decision was made, Lutsic said, by an assistant principal at the high school and a house principal at the middle school, on the basis of the recommendation by a committee of a few administrators, teachers, and students who got together after the last field trip to evaluate the whole program.

The trip to the high school in recent years, Lutsic said, has combined two events that used to be separate: attendance of the musical and what is known as “transition,” or a tour of the high-school facilities for eighth-graders who will be attending the following fall.

It was probably budget concerns or an issue of time taken away from the regular academic day that prompted these two visits to be combined into one, Lutsic said. But combining them had started to seem ineffective, he said.

The committee thought that the transition was probably best not done in March, and questioned whether the entire student body was really benefitting from seeing the musical, since some students — as evidenced in a survey taken last spring, Lutsic said — had little interest and found it tiring to sit and watch for three hours.

It was the committee that suggested breaking up the two events — bringing the entire eighth-grade class to the school in May and bringing only the Mask students in March.

Another reason for focusing on the Mask students, Lutsic said, was that there are many more of them than there are Guilderland Players — he said Guilderland Players number 55 or 60 including stage crew and orchestra — and the hope was to retain more of them as they transition to high school.

School-board member Barbara Fraterrigo had not heard anything about the decision until she received a letter from former Guilderland Player Leslie LaGuardia, who graduated in 1976 and who starred that year as Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun.” LaGuardia wrote in her letter to the board (also reprinted in this week’s Enterprise) that the eighth-grade field trip changed her life and that she went from being a lost and underperforming kid to someone who has had a long and rich career related to dance and show business. She wrote, “All of this came from one bus ride, one field trip, one fateful day when an unpopular, poor kid from Altamont saw that there was a place for people like me, through the Guilderland Players.”

Fraterrigo told The Enterprise, “Today the arts are suffering so, because you have so much emphasis on the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] classes.” She said that she thought it was a mistake to view the field trip as time taken away from academic work. “To me,” she said, “attending the play is education time.”

LaGuardia heard about the decision before the board members because she saw a Facebook posting by Agnes Armstrong, who was on the Guilderland Players staff for 20 years starting in 1971, variously as vocal director, conductor, or musical director. Armstrong heard about the decision from Andy Maycock, a Guilderland High School teacher and long-time director of Guilderland Players’ productions. Maycock sent Armstrong a copy of a letter he wrote to the board of education about the decision, and Armstrong in turn posted a plea on Facebook, asking former Guilderland Players who felt strongly about the issue to write letters to the board.

Armstrong said on Wednesday that the eighth-grade field trip is “really a feeder event.” She said, “Most middle school kids haven’t found their interests yet, so limiting those who come to the kids who have already been in the middle school drama club does not help much at all. Even if some kids are bored and teachers have to act like field-trip chaperones — well, isn’t that all part of our life?”

Kathleen Richards Ehlinger, who has for many years conducted the Guilderland Players’ Pit Orchestra, said that she thought it was a decision that had been made without any thought for the fact that the field trip has been going on since, she believes, 1970. She said that she graduated from Guilderland in 1982 and went on the field trip to see the musical when she was in eighth grade; she couldn’t wait, she said, to get to high school so she could join the pit orchestra.

The Enterprise also received an impassioned letter from Michael Cusick, who graduated from Guilderland in 1973 and went on from doing lighting and sound for the Guilderland Players to a successful career as the head of sound for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the presidency of a prominent performing-arts audio and video company, SAVI. Cusick was told that the middle-schoolers have, since 1981, put on a musical themselves, and that those kids would still take the same field trip. He replied that he thought it was still important to expose all kids to a performance “of the next level.”

Mask grew out of the Farnsworth Players, which Lasted found in a yearbook dating back to 1981. Mask turns no one away, said Laster; children who do not get roles are encouraged to take part in some other way, behind the scenes. The music director is Terri Mewhorter, and the producer is art teacher Shannon O’Mahony, said Laster. The school has hired a director, Steve Suriano, and a choreographer, he said.

Mask gives one performance every year, a musical, in March. This year’s show, “Oklahoma!”, will run from March 10 to 12.

The Guilderland Players started in 1969. The group is open to high school students from ninth through 12th grades and offers options of acting, singing, and dancing — all requiring auditions — and stage crew, costuming, and other behind-the-scenes work. It also features a live pit orchestra made up of students who begin rehearsing in the fall. The Guilderland Players perform twice a year, putting on a dramatic production in the fall and the year’s biggest, best-attended event, a musical, in the spring.

The Guilderland Players’ first auditions were held in fall of 1969, under the direction of Bob Scrafford, said Fred Heitkamp. Heitkamp added that the first show, “Bye, Bye Birdie” was presented in February of 1970. The 50th-anniversary show, he said, will be in March 2019.

Heitkamp became the director with the 1972 show and continued until 1994. He then kept involved in producing and stage managing until his retirement from teaching English at Guilderland High School in 1998.

This year’s musical, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” is scheduled for March 16 through March 19. The Thursday performance is a dress rehearsal.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” said Farnsworth’s Laster. “We’re certainly willing to listen and find out what’s best for kids.”

Asked if the school board would be discussing the matter at its next meeting on Wednesday, Superintendent Marie Wiles said that it would.

“I have asked a couple of our administrators to share with the board that night what the process was that led to this decision,” she said, noting that neither she nor the board members had heard about the decision until very recently.

Wiles did not know just when the field trip to the musical and the transition activities were combined, but thought it had been a few years.

“The issue,” she said, “is the amount of time that eighth-grade students would be out of the classroom in the spring.”

Combining the two events, though, had given the transition activities relatively short shrift, as most of the eighth-graders’ time at the high school had been spent watching the play.

Wiles said that several of the letter writers have already signed up to speak during the meeting’s public comment period.

 

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