Picking up the threads of 'Quilters'
Sandy Banks | LA TIMES COLUMNIST
February 28, 2009 - The Chatsworth High School drama program boasts an illustrious list of movie alums: Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, action hero Val Kilmer and Emmy Award-winning actress Mare Winningham.
But a look at a recent school newsletter shows just how far the program has fallen since Spacey and Winningham played the leads in "The Sound of Music" in the school auditorium 30 years ago.
Clockwise from far left, Sam Sterns directs actors Jade Rivera, Miranda Dainard, Brian Bose, and Desirae Lupien in a scene from Shakespeare's "Macbeth." – Mel Melcron/LA Times
The school's December bulletin offered kudos to the band, drill team, girls golf and volleyball squads; announcements about the tutoring schedule and college visits; and solicitations for a poster contest.
It ended with this line: "Due to unfortunate circumstances, CHS Drama production of "Quilters" has been postponed. . . ."
Translation: The drama program was so broke that the fall play was canceled for the first time in the school's history.
Walt McDowell has taught drama for 21 years, 15 of those at Chatsworth High. He's weathered budget troubles before.
You scrap the popular, big-ticket shows, with their $1,500 royalty payments, elaborate choreography and costumes. "No 'Snoopy,' 'Bye-Bye Birdie,' 'Annie,' " he said. "I haven't done a big musical in eight years."
But when he couldn't afford to pay the custodian to lock up the campus after weekend rehearsals last fall, he knew it was time to throw in the towel on the show.
His annual budget -- which includes putting on a spring play, a variety show and transporting students to two drama competitions -- is only $600.
"I know every other school is in the same situation," McDowell told me. "And it's not just a question of dollars."
He's right. A cavalcade of circumstances has pushed drama programs to the bottom of educational priorities.
In elementary schools, the narrow focus on math and reading means fewer school plays and less time for the arts. In middle schools, budget cuts have eliminated theater field trips.
"So kids grow up with no exposure to live theater," he said. And though his five drama classes are full, "the audience for our work is dwindling. We used to have sold-out shows. Now we average about 100 people a performance."
On Wednesday, I visited McDowell's class, on the edge of the San Fernando Valley campus, near the athletic field where the school's best-known commodity -- its nationally ranked baseball team -- practices. Needless to say, that team's spring games are packed.
This recent squeeze on the drama department frustrates parents who see their children devote as much energy and commitment on the stage as other kids do on the field.
"We get one bus a year, to take the kids to competition," said Sandy Wood, a parent who doubles as choreographer. "The sports teams get buses every week."
But if the theater program has lost its luster, the students don't appear to notice. Or maybe they're just really good actors. I wandered through groups of students practicing for an upcoming Shakespeare competition. I can't remember the last time I saw so many kids working so hard -- and having such fun -- on a high school campus.
I bumbled through a couple questions about how they think they are perceived by classmates, trying not to use the phrase "drama geeks."
"Go ahead and say it," said Michelle De La Cruz, a 12th-grader directing three classmates in a "Romeo and Juliet" scene. "We're eccentric," she said, making air quotes with her fingers.
It turns out the drama program draws the kind of kids you find on every campus. "We've got the Aca-Deca kids, football players, a wrestler," she said, ticking them off. "We had a cheerleader one year, even."
I spot a girl who used to play soccer with my daughter. She quit because she never really found that magical combination of camaraderie and teamwork that sports teams are supposed to deliver.
Now a senior, Samantha Sterns has 18 piercings, an incandescent smile and a home among the drama geeks.
"We've got a lot of preppy people," she said. "Some like rock. Some like R&B. But we all listen to show tunes, and totally rock out.
"We're not a sport, but we're a team."
The drama program's big fund-raiser is next week -- a Friday night music and variety show, with dinner included for $10.
On Thursday, the parent booster club -- all 10 of them -- met to finalize their volunteer assignments.
The teacher made the grocery list: Six pounds of pasta from Costco, 10 bags of salad. Meatballs, salad dressing and marinara sauce. The moms pledged their crockpots and chafing dishes. A student's grandmother will work the ticket booth. The teacher's wife will make her famous cherry cheesecake. And everyone, it seemed, will bring a dish of homemade lasagna. The students will spend the afternoon cooking and perform at night.
In June, they will debut a rock version of "The Taming of the Shrew," a play that won't require costly props, rental costumes or royalties.
And if all goes well, maybe next year, the Chatsworth Chancellors can afford to present "The Sound of Music" once again.