Please join me, Mircea Oprea, on Zuma Café as I have a conversation with David Roth, head of the Theater Department for Westport, Connecticut's own Staples High School. We talk about Al Pia, Craig Matheson, Joe Ziegahn, Judy Luster, Staples Players, teaching theater, getting parents and the community involved, and putting on performances before, during and hopefully very soon after this national pandemic. We also talk about how and when he took over as Theater Director, who and what were his inspirations, how he does it so well and what the future holds for the Staples Theater Department and the Staples Players.
A Conversation with David Roth
The Zuma Café Show with Mircea Oprea
Mar 21, 2021
MIRCEA: Hello, this is Mircea Oprea, host of the Zuma Café Show. The other day, I had a great conversation with David Roth, head of the Theater Department for Westport, Connecticut's very own Staples High School. We talked about Al Pia, Craig Matheson, Joe Ziegahn, Judy Luster, the Staples Players, teaching theater, getting parents and the community involved, and putting on performances before, during and hopefully very soon after we see this global pandemic in our rearview mirrors.
Before this, I hadn't talked with David since our High School graduation back in '84, but will admit, I have been loosely following his career after he took over the Theater Department - 21 years ago - at MY alma mater, Staples High School. Fast forward to 2018, we reconnected over social media, and in the Fall of 2020, after much coaxing on my behalf, he finally gave in and agreed to sit down, remotely of course, to talk about how and when he took over as Theater Director, who was and what were his inspirations, how he does it so well and what the future holds for Staples' Theater Department and Staples Players.
And now, please join me as I have a conversation with David Roth.
[MUSIC: Intro Guitar]
MIRCEA: Hello this is Mircea Oprea with the Zuma Cafe Show and thank you for listening. Today I'm talking with David Roth who was the head of the Theater Department for Westport Staples' High School David, good to be talking with you again.
DAVID: Good to be talking with you yeah, long time.
MIRCEA: So David you grew up in Westport is that true?
DAVID: I actually moved to Westport when I was 14, so I actually grow up in the suburbs of Chicago and um, at that point I was already really into theater from the time I, pretty much from the time I can ever remember I really wanted to be on stage and so when I was young, before I moved to Westport, I was really involved with a theater group out in Park Forest Illinois, with a woman by the name of Etel Bilig who was a great theater teacher and she was ah, I loved her to death, and so I was really into that and then when we, when my father found out he was being transferred to Connecticut and one of the places they were looking at was Westport, Connecticut this woman Etel was like "Oh my god the theater out there, you're gonna be close to New York and Westport such an artist community" and she knew all about it and the Westport Country Playhouse that type of stuff so I was very excited and actually we chose Westport because I was so into theater, because they had such a dynamic Theater program at Staples High School so then . . .
MIRCEA: So your first year in Westport was at Staples?
DAVID: No remember we had ninth grade, in um, ninth grade was still in middle school so no I was supposed to, I graduated from junior high school out in Chicago so I was all already got high school, and then I move out to Westport and I have to go back into a middle school for another year so no, it was sophomore year that I actually met you, and that we got involved with Staples Players.
MIRCEA: Right! So David and I both went to the same high school, the same age, in the same classes, we were in the same drama class with Al Pia. Would you mind talking a little bit about Al Pia, you probably know more about his history, or um, your, your interaction with him, because he was he was a Drama Teacher back then they called the "drama teacher" according to what you told me. When did he retire and who took his place?
DAVID: He retired in '96 and so at that point, he and I had become, I mean obviously we had him as our teacher and our director and he really, I think one of the big things that Al always instilled in students was just that you really needed to that there was no limit to what a student could do. His expectations for ah us for were the same that he had with his adult actors. Cause he also ran a very successful community theater which is still operating in Stamford Connecticut The Ethel Kweskin Theatre. So Al had these great drama classes and did these productions which were you know some were very successful, some weren't but they always, the kids were always very, very passionate about. I think he really fostered passion in students. He was actually the second director of Staples, the first guy was Craig Matheson, who was also a terrific, terrific teacher and a really was the one that founded Staples Players and then Al took over from him about eight years after that and was there for how long was Al there for? I think Al was there from like '68 to '96 so what was that 28 years? And I remember thinking that that was amazing that that was so much time and yet now here I am in my 21st year at Staples High School and I undoubtedly will, will I mean unless something awful happens, I will, when I retired, I will have surpassed his years of service by many, many years. So after I got out of high school, I wanted to go into, I wanted to study to be an actor and I ended up, I went to Carnegie Mellon for a year, and that didn't really work out. And so I ended up going back to Chicago and I went to the theater school and DePaul University used to be called Goodman School of Drama, and I got my Bachelor's Degree, my BFA in Acting, and did a lot of theater in Chicago afterwards was actually a founding member of a couple of companies and met a lot of people that are still, you know, very successful today and then I moved back out to Connecticut and I did some work at ah, I did some work little theaters in New York, I did some work at (???) and about that time I was starting to think about, hmm do I want to stay in this, do I want to do this for the rest of my life and about that time, I spoke to Al and he said that he was thinking about retiring and at this point I had to substitute teach as sort of my day job while I was you know doing acting jobs when I had them and I was Al's regular substitute and Al asked if when he retired whether I would be interested in possibly becoming a teacher and taking over the program that had meant so much to us. And so, I started to think about it and then I decided that yeah, that was something that I was really interested in, I was interested in you know, being able to create work with students and to be able to instill that kind of passion in them, that Al had instilled in me so I, I had to go back to school and get my teaching certificate and actually there was a great program that allowed me to do that to called the Alternate Route to (Teacher) Certification and basically in I think it was eight weeks in one summer, it was basically boot camp, you went to class for like 10 hours a day and then you read all night and you come back the next day. I got my teaching certificate in one summer.
MIRCEA: Where was this? Was this in Westport or Stamford or?
DAVID: The program was in Sacred Heart (University) which in Fairfield Connecticut, but it was actually a state program, and the whole idea of this program was to take professionals so to get scientists to become science teachers to get engineers to become math teachers to get, it allowed people to take, if you had a skill sent in the professional world it allowed you to transition into teaching without having to go back and take two years out of your life cause what professional can afford that type of time, you know
MIRCEA: It's really interesting.
DAVID: There is just no way. It's a great program.
MIRCEA: That's great!
DAVID: Yeah, it is cause I think it brings a new set of skills and a new set of people to the classroom, including people that have real life experience in these fields, you know, so I was able to do that because I talked about, nobody has like a real theater certification program so I was getting certified in English but I had already, when I substitute taught, I had already been using my theater skills and that type of stuff in the classroom and getting kids to do to do activities through that type of stuff.
MIRCEA: Did that also include the hours obviously you're working? Did those add to your certification, the actual hours that you were substitute teaching?
DAVID: You know is actually an interesting question, it was a requirement that you had had a significant amount of time with students. You couldn't, see you can just come in unless you It didn't have to be in the classroom, you could have been like a Boy Scout leader or a but somehow you had to have, you had to know what a kid's mind was like. So, yah, that did, that helped me a lot, and then of course you don't have that you know to have that experience, and I had been substitute teaching in Westport schools. So when I got my certificate, Al still hadn't left he was still in his final years of teaching and I ended up teaching at Stanford for a semester and then I get a job teaching fifth grade at Bedford Middle School already been directing the shows there and then so I did that and then about this time Al decided that he was going to retire, and there was a big, you know, party and everybody you know talked about what a great guy he was, which he was.
DAVID: So I was like, okay, I'm ready to apply for this job, and um there was a woman, at Staples, who was an English teacher she directed some shows at Staples and she always had this passion for theater and she basically been waiting for Al to retire like her entire career cause she was, you know at this point she's probably in her fifties and she'd been waiting for 20 to 25 years for this job, so I didn't even get an interview for this job that I had kind of I've changed my whole career for, I didn't even get an interview for it. So she, she got the job at Staples and took over and
MIRCEA: What year was that about?
DAVID: That was '96, that was in '96 when Al retired. So I ended up continuing to teach fifth grade at Bedford Middle School and actually started a whole drama production of a class,that basically every kid in middle school, and to this day every kid in middle school in Westport now takes theater and I started that program when I was at the middle school.
MIRCEA: Wow, that is great!
DAVID: Yeah, yeah, and um so I started that and did some great productions and I think really grew as a director so in the long run it was sort of a blessing in disguised, because I think I came when this one woman, she decided that she really, really wasn't for her, wasn't was working out, wasn't what she thought of this was gonna be and it was just kind overwhelming, I think. When she decided not to do anymore, four years later in 2000 then I was really well set up to get the job. And this I got an interview and I got the job. So in the long run, it all worked out very well. I've been there since 2000 So this is my 21st year I think? So a long time.
MIRCEA: Wow, that's a long road, and a very, very productive and helping. I mean setting up that program. Did you ever get involved in the Stanford Theater like Al Pia was?
DAVID: I didn't, I didn't. No I mean they have their own group. I did do some community theater around the state until my daughter was born and then it was just between directing shows, which is really second job, you know I couldn't do those and then also still lacked myself so I have acted really in ah 11 years 'cause she's, she's 11 years old so.
MIRCEA: Yeah, yeah well we're gonna change that.
MIRCEA: That's my next crazy idea and you're gonna be involved. So now you've taken over or you've taken over the Theatre Department, and what was like the first things that you wanted to change keep the same . . . Al Pia passed away?
DAVID: Al passed away gosh, maybe 2003, 2004 I think?
MIRCEA: Okay so it wasn't long after you took over.
DAVID: Not that long.
MIRCEA: Were you still consulting him or . . . talked to him at all?
DAVID: I still talked to him. He continued to do the shows in the summer for several.
DAVID: Actually it was probably like 2007 or 2008, it was longer than I had initially said. So I still talked to him, and he came to see the shows and also Crag Matheson who was the head before that he and I actually spell of time together to.
DAVID: And actually both Al and Craig were instrumental in helping me get the position, they both were in favor of it so.
DAVID: Yes, yes absolutely.
MIRCEA: So going back to, what did you keep what did you change or or what was your angle, or what were you thinking about as far as maybe modeling it more into like a David Roth kind of a theater department?
DAVID: Well a few things. I'd say one of the biggest things I changed was that it had always been a sort of the hands off for parents, that the kids did everything and that, that the parents weren't very involved and having worked at the middle schools the parents were very involved and I got the parents even more involved and they loved to be there, they loved to help out, they loved to do things, they loved to really support the program so I brought in parents and really got them involved the kids still, the kids still own, have ownership of most of the elements of production but really by having the parents' support, it just helped in so many ways and it also was I think really, I think the parents really loved the experience of being involved with the shows, you know. It's sort of . . .
DAVID: They're part of the team now, so that was a good thing.
MIRCEA: And they want to help. It's a very different parent generation.
DAVID: Yes, yes.
MIRCEA: I'm a parent, you're a parent. So what we say to a dad like myself that wants to come in and help build sets 'cause I love it.
DAVID: Oh gosh, I would just go in and talk to the person that runs it. What they're really I think what like our technical director and the parents that, you know that do or the adults that work with us the parents that they really want to be involved that they particular love are ones that can sort of take on projects on their own. That don't need to, you know I think a lot of times parents come in and they want to make sure that they're not messing up and so they seek a lot of approval and that type of stuff, which is fine, but I know that they get really excited, the designers and the the technical people get really excited when a parent can sort of run with it themselves.
DAVID: And I think that that's you know, to come in and an offer your services and just tell them that you have experience in theater I think that that's also really important people to understand that it's like you're building this set but it's, it's you're not gonna build it so that people can live in it for 25 years. You're building it so that it can move across the stage quickly while something else moves on at the same time, you know things like that are very important and I've seen some, you know some sets that are built literally like a, like a playground you know what I they're so, they're so heavy duty and it's just like but their so heavy and it's so not necessary because you're really looking for something that's gonna last. You know it's gotta be safe, and it's gotta have structure but it's all it's all show. It doesn't, you know you need to think about it okay is somebody going to see that from 20 feet away and how do we, how do we do this efficiently and also make it so that it's mobile, you know that it can move.
MIRCEA: Exactly, you part it out and use for another set. Since we're on the subject of set building can you talk about Joe Ziegahn?
DAVID: I can, I can, so Joe ah, when our first, I think our first year at Staples was Joe's first year at Staples.
MIRCEA: He was my art teacher in Long Lots.
MIRCEA: So that's where he came from right?
DAVID: Yeah, and he did all the sets for your guy's shows at the middle school right?
MIRCEA: Yes, we'll put up pictures.
DAVID: I could! And so so he, he was incredible, just in terms of the way he could visualize something and just make it happen and also could just freehand paint signs and lettering and just his spatial ability to sort of see something and what it could possibly be was incredible.
MIRCEA: I remember the upgrade of having him do the sets and they became professional sets and his guidance for perspective for what a theater set should be. You're seeing it from the audience. I remember working with him on that on a couple sets and just loving it because it was such important information . . . anyway please continue I just had to throw that in there because he was so good at that and to have that kind of design aspect, I mean it really knocked up those sets to a professional level yet, and the kids got to learn all the aspects of the theater which was also fun about being part of Players, and we're going to talk more about that in a minute, but um, continue with Joe Ziegahn because I know you two were for pretty close weren't you?
DAVID: Yeah, and I think he was the perfect match for Al in that Al really, you know I mean, I feel like Al one of the biggest things he instilled in us was that was like it's never dull and until it's as good as it possibly can be. That you never settle for anything not being like "oh that's okay, that'll be alright" he always wanted, it could always be better and I think Joe you know, also he was such an inspiration to so many kids and so many, even people that didn't necessarily go into the theater, I know I, know adults that still building things and still are so passionate about that time with Joe and he, um he was with us up until gosh, um, he died a couple years after Al, but I wanna say I wanna say in 2014, I'm sorry no in ah 2009, we did our 50 year anniversary of Players and he was he was no longer building for us he was no longer the tech detector I remember him being in the audience and him being . . . I think he was already sick, and so, so that's about, I think he died soon after that.
DAVID: But he was our technical director when I was there for the first 7 to 8 years and that was great to be able to come in and know him and have worked with him cause I don't know if you remember I was a
MIRCEA: Since a teenager.
DAVID: Yeah, and I was, I was for some bizarre reason I was vice president of Tech in our senior year and even though I was acting a lot, I also then somehow was Vice President of Tech and did stage managing in all different types of stuff so I get to know him pretty well in our senior year building the set for Cabaret and he's you know he's another part of Staples Players where did you know he's got a legacy, and interestingly enough, you know that little room off stage left which was Joe Ziegahn office to this day, the kids you know they know who Joe Ziegahn is but that room is still Ziegahn's office. It was always, when he left it was still like it was still lost a slightly and we keep a lid on sort of more valuable props keep like um, sort of more valuable props in that little room and so it would still be like "take that to Ziegahn's office" so kids you know when you're a freshman you come in and one of the things you learn is where Ziegahn's office is, and if somebody tells you to go "get something from Ziegahn's office" you go So they learn about Ziegahn's office long before they learn about who Joe is. I do try to make sure that everybody in this in the program does know about the history of these people and every year we give awards and there is there is a "Joe Ziegahn" award now, there's an "Al Pia" award, and there's a "Craig Matheson" award so every time I get those out I, you know, re-emphasize who these people were and how they're important to the history of players and I think, I think the fact that Players, I think one of the things that really makes Staples unique, I mean there's some great high school theater programs all over the country but I think one of the things that really is important about Staples and perhaps unique about staples is that our theater program we can trace it back and we know exactly what was going on from 1959 when it was founded all the way to today and so I think that history and also just the amount of people that have gone into the arts, have gone into theater, have gone into film and that type of stuff, everybody feels kind of connected to that. We have a hashtag that we use on things when we're doing a post about somebody that's particularly successful in theater that was a Player and we believe that that's called Staples Players Mafia and so we hashtag things that sort of a . . .
MIRCEA: That's great
DAVID: And it has helped, I mean, I know people have gone to other Staples Players that are successful. I've had Stage Managers who a woman named Anne Lowrie, I don't if you remember Anne, Anne would have been a couple of years behind us, but she's been the stage manager for the Blue Man Group in New York City for I think like 10 years at least, and so whenever I have a stage manager that's really passionate about it, they go in and they get to be on headsets with Anne calling Blue Man Group, so they get to be up in the booth with her, and listen to her call this professional show she's done it for a so many of our kids.
MIRCEA: That is great!
DAVID: Yeah, I know it's really, really terrific and two years ago, it's so hard to remember with COVID you know, two years ago we had Andrew Lott. Andrew Lott was a lighting designer for um, while I was at Staples and he came back and lead a workshop for them this year of Andrew was majorly responsible for the lighting for both (President) Biden's, the huge lights and the fireworks that went on the day that he won the election and also for the inauguration he's the one he was responsible for setting up the lights along the reflecting pool to represent all the people that died from COVID.
MIRCEA: Oh wow.
DAVID: So you know what I'm talking about?
MIRCEA: Yeah, I know exactly.
MIRCEA: Each one represented something like 10,000 people, deaths.
DAVID: Yeah, and then actually just this week another one of our lighting designers, who's been working professional, was like "Hey I'm designing the lights for Biden's open house this week. Completely unconnected, I believe, but we seem to be providing lighting designers to Biden Administration, so ah
MIRCEA: Staples is that path.
DAVID: It is, it is and I think that everybody feels a part of that, and I know that's a huge thing. I felt that when I was at Staples, you know I was part of something that was that was important to so many people so.
MIRCEA: Is there a strong alum backing?
DAVID: There, it there is.
MIRCEA: I know that I just recently got involved again. Sorry. Sorry David, but I'm back all cylinders firing away.
DAVID: Yeah the alum are very supportive and they come back. These people that were, even in the sixties, when Craig Matheson was the Director, they are so still connected in they're so passionate about the place that they did in in the 60s when we did all we did in 2006, we did A Midsummer Night's Dream and we had, we had set the play in the mid-sixties so there was a, it kind of went along with cause the whole play, Midsummer Night's Dream, is really about kids rebelling against their parents and sort of breaking away and then so since that was the theme of Midsummer Night's Dream we thought well that would be perfect for our production is to set it in the 60s and use all the 60s music
DAVID: which the kids loved, and then they run into the woods and then it sort of like the kind of have a psychedelic, you know, experience of course we didn't really use the word 'psychedelic' or implied, but the whole concept is that if you put this juice on your eyes then whenever you wake up you fall in love with the first thing that you see so there's definitely a kind of a psychedelic element to an it and then you wake up and everything's "Oh was it a dream?" that type of thing, so we had already decided to set this in the sixties and then I don't remember how it came about but I reached out to the cast of Midsummer Night's Dream from 1966
DAVID: Which is actually year were born, you were born in '66 too?
MIRCEA: Yes, yes but I am still 25.
DAVID: Oh right, right I forgot about that, yeah okay. And so I invited and literally almost the entire cast from 1966 came to this reunion.
MIRCEA: Oh my god that's great.
DAVID: Yeah they went out and they had this big dinner party and then they came and saw the show and then afterwards they came up on stage and we took pictures of everybody together and it was pretty amazing. So they got have their and we were doing it in 2006 so it was the 50th anniversary . . . wait No, it was the 40th anniversary of their production of it so it was pretty cool.
MIRCEA: That it's great.
MIRCEA: 2006, yeah I always get the numbers.
DAVID: Yeah, I know.
MIRCEA: It's like 1995 is really 25 years ago right? Or 26 years ago? When you started to, this is still pre COVID, so as you are putting on these plays and you are um you know putting them together, packaging, things like that, was there any kind of style or technique that you do a little bit differently than in Al did far as the way you like two um, rehearse that kind of thing or ah.
DAVID: Well, I think in terms of we now do a lot more plays then they use to do we do we do two, usually too full musicals or a musical and like a Shakespeare and then we do a full Black Box production too which allows us to serve smaller dramas or comedies, so when Al really his musicals almost all were these traditional you know, Carousel and My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls and all of these sort of classic awesome musicals and then you know he he he he sometimes went a little bit away from that we really pushed him to do Cabaret I don't think he was really fun of the idea, but I think our class kind of pushed him to do that.
DAVID: But then Judy Luster who had come in after him she had really done some she had really sort of thought in a different vein from that. She did musicals like A Chorus Line and Runaways and these other plays that were very sort of modern and much more gritty than the stuff that Al had done and so I tried to do not only that the classic plays, but then each year did something that was a little bit more out of the box. So really tried to bring those things into it. I don't know, I mean I think I am certainly a different type of an acting teacher than Al was and I think that affects a lot of the ways that we do things, co-direct all the shows with my wife Kerry Long and so I think she has a huge influence on, not only the performance but really the aesthetic of the productions. Kerry's a professional photographer and so she sees things in terms of light and and images and this type of stuff so so I feel like together we sort of bring a different aesthetic to the show.
MIRCEA: It's a great team. How did you meet Kerry? Can I ask?
DAVID: I met Kerry in like when she was she had graduated from Colombia and we get to know each other through doing um, she came and she worked on a couple shows with us actually and um, so I got to know her through her passion for theater, you know, and she's as I said coming in from a sort of a different perspective of the art history degree and ah that type of stuff. So we really got to know through doing productions and then we started co-directing them, and we've been co-directing them I think for I think she started doing that with me probably my third or fourth year at Staples so we're definitely a team and um all of us give direction and it's usually it's the exact same note. We now think kind of the same in terms of what we want from things and, I also in my in my theater classes one of the the biggest things I do is a unit that I don't even know how I came up with it but it's called um it's called Census and the concept is that, and everybody does it in sophomore year off of high school, so Theater Two, we didn't really talk about how the classes work. We have Theater One, Theater Two and then Theater Three which you can take in junior year. There's Theater Three Acting or there's Theater Three Directing and are Directing program is is huge and some kids take it for two years and so that's something that Al never had. Actually I believe Judy got the course approved but then she never taught it so it started I was the first one to actually teach the class but in Theater Two.
MIRCEA: What about technical, do you have classes on that too?
DAVID: You we have, there's a stagecraft book, and there's a Stagecraft in Theater Two class on the book and fortunately we really have anybody to teach it might technical, I have a fantastic Technical Director now, but he's not a teacher and we also have a costume design class which sometimes if it works out that I teach costume designer or that I teach stagecraft but because the acting classes and directing classes are so popular I don't have enough time my schedule to actually teach those classes unfortunately they they don't get caught which is really unfortunate so the kids learn most of their skills after school but in Theater Two we do this thing called The Census and the kids have to create these characters from the ground up they create basically about a 11 to 12 page biography, everything from your childhood to your religious beliefs to your political beliefs to your, you know, your sexual orientation, all of these things they have to write about in detail in these biographies and then they come to class and I play a guy who is the head of this sort of it's like a, what is it called, it's like a breakout group it's a a focus group, that's it is. And so the ideas that these these 20 kids, 20 people are coming from different parts of the country, wherever they've decided they're from, and they all are meeting together and I'd basically put them through talking about their experiences and they half to sustain that character for 45 to 50 minutes at a time in class. So we do this long form of improvisation and Kerry thinks that that is one of the the things that really helps our productions a lot is that these kids are able to not only focus but they're able to sustain a character for that long so we retry when you look at one of our productions hopefully every single person is involved in every single person has their own idea of what's going on and that type of stuff and so is so we try to make it so that it's really it's not like "oh you're just in the ensemble therefore you're you know be there in the background and you do this and you do that" but that everybody has a reason to be there and I think most of the kids will tell you that the that the Census which we do for about 2 to 3 months so they sustain these characters every class for 2 to 3 months they come in and they dress as the characters, they change their clothes before they walk into the classroom so I think that that is one of the things that others then one of most successful things that I've sort of created in terms of a teacher.
DAVID: We also do mask work for which is a big part of what the kids learn how to do so so really letting go of everything in their physicality and sort of inhabiting a mask and taking on that physicality I think helps a lot in terms of being able to become characters that they're not used to being.
MIRCEA: Yeah. I notice that like in the audio dramas and we're going to get to that too, the advertisements they speak in their character voice to a degree. Real quick note, I remember seeing Judy Luster in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Did you see that?
DAVID: Yes, I did.
MIRCEA: I mean that was insane and that was the first time I actually saw a teacher actually being in a performance like that that's thinking outside of the box, it was a great performance, but I just remember my jaw drop in watching her do that and she nailed it so well, she did such a great job, but I never really go to know Judy at all the whole time I was there, I was too shy go up and tell her what I thought I was very very impressed.
DAVID: She was, she was probably one of my favorite teachers when I was in Staples she was great.
MIRCEA: Is still there? Or is she retired?
DAVID: No she retired.
MIRCEA: Ok. Talk a little bit about Staples Players so that the people that are listening probably know Staples Players but, what is it? It's a group? Obviously I was a Staples Player, am I still a Staples Player? I guess I'm an alum and there are a lot of alums out there that are doing well.
MIRCEA: Not so much in 2020, but can you just talk a little bit about that?
MIRCEA: Talk about Staples Players.
DAVID: Well Staples Players, I mean I think . . . you can't really separate Staples from Westport and I think one of the things that is so incredible about Staples Players, I think it was true even when we were in high school, is that in a lot of high schools, theatre is sort of thought to be I don't know, lesser than sports, sort of like, it's like if you can't do a sport maybe you do theater it's it's not it's not given as much value. I've even heard of a lot of a lot of teachers that when they direct a play they'll make you know a fifth of what a coach makes in order to direct that. So it's really . . . they'll do show, and they'll do a show for you know maybe three or four performances and they're hoping that they can get you know 100, 200, 300 people there you know but it's really just the families of the kids are in the shows and I think that, I mean especially now, I mean we do a show if it's particularly it's a popular show, I mean when we did Mamma Mia! In 2019 and we had, I think total audience of about 9,000 over the course of the run of the show, I think we ran for nine performances.
DAVID: Yeah, yeah. That is . . . that's a big thing that I think you can't underestimate with Westport is that we have an audience when we do a show, the town comes to the show.
MIRCEA: That's great.
DAVID: And then the kids, by the time the kids get up to Staples, they've seen, 10 Staples Player shows and so they know they that they want to be a Staples Player when they are little because their with their families and so it's a big town activity perhaps in some ways it's as popular if not more popular than going to a sporting event. I think if we get in the playoffs or that type of thing, then they'll get you know a couple thousand people at a football game, but we've been lucky in that you know we've really sort of we've been getting those, I mean that's an extreme audience, but we've been selling at least 7/8th of a house for almost every show we do for the last, you know, 20 years so that's not only do the kids, are the kids so excited about doing it, but then they go out and do it and they get I mean you know what is was like when we did, I mean Cabaret was sold that way, and is was just the sound that audience and having that many bodies in a room together and been excited you just feel that amount of energy and these kids get that experience and because of that we also then we get the revenue from tickets are also able to put more money into the program and produce sets and produce costumes that are on par with a with a pretty professional production and so therefore you get to see this, you know, so therefore more people want come see it because they really enjoyed seeing it that's a big part of I think that the town support is just amazing. And the fact that we have a high school that has a full four year theater program, for classes.
MIRCEA: Oh that's right you now have freshmen.
DAVID: You can come in and take four straight years of Theater and so because of that also been we have a lot of kids that when they're done with high school they go into performing arts programs at college. This year we have nine of our graduating seniors are going into theater or film either as a lighting designer or director or a performer. Oh and then we have someone that's going into Arts Management as well that wants to be like a Theater Manager.
MIRCEA: So how many people does the auditorium hold?
DAVID: The auditorium holds 960.
MIRCEA: 960 people? Wow. Okay, and you're charging admission when people go to these performances?
MIRCEA: Cabaret, as David was talking about David was the, you were the Emcee, weren't you? Yeah, you knocked it out of the park.
DAVID: And you were Cliff Bradshaw.
MIRCEA: That's right, the romantic lead.
DAVID: The romantic lead.
MIRCEA: Yes, that's right, I remember that, that was a lot of fun, a lot of fun I remember the sets and I remember watching you from the wings just going "oh my God! This guy is very scary good. It was a very impressive performance. It was a lot of fun.
DAVID: It was
MIRCEA: So, as far as the direction goats . . . you're looking down the road it's starting to sound like theater is it's such a high level. I mean obviously Staples all the classes and you know the soccer program, I was involved in the soccer program
MIRCEA: All these programs, but the Theater Program people are going on as Staples Players doing some successful things, and I guess like ah, you really knocked it up a level. Not to say anything bad about it by the else but it's really impressive, it's really good to see or hear what you're doing and doing for this program, and I'm sure the kids totally appreciate it and the parents as well and I love the way that you bring in more parents. What I would like to talk about now is, we've all been dealing with COVID as you know, and I got a post that was for one of the first productions for Stables Players that you put on that was a radio drama broadcast.
MIRCEA: Let's talk about that because that I can see a lot of other instructors or teachers that might want to learn more about how you did it and the preparations you made and setup and things like that and how you had the kids spaced out. I know a lot of them were wearing a mask.
MIRCEA: Could you talk about that a little bit.
DAVID: Absolutely so we, um last year we were supposed to open our production of Seussical on March 13, the schools shut down completely Westport had like a super spreader event so we were a kind of a day ahead of everyone else in the country and so we shut down two days before we were going the open this production so that was a huge, that's how COVID began for us. We likely were able to get parents it get about a 150 parents in for our final dress rehearsal the night before the school shutdown down on the day before so some parents actually got to see it before it never opened. And so soon after that, I knew that the kids, I mean everyone was just so devastated and particularly the seniors were facing you know not having graduation and not having any of the normal things and so we did a production which was like a Zoom production where everybody was at home and they all had kind of monologues it's called um what was it called? "10 Ways to Survive in Quarantine" and was all about like these kids there at home and they're all kind of going crazy and so they all did little monologue about what is you know talking to their basketball or are you know, doing shows with their pets etcetera, etcetera and so forth and it was it was silly and that was the first thing we did and it was, it was fun to do was great to have something to work on but the things that really missing from it were that nobody was ever sort of involved in the same time everybody was isolated and so to to have theater become an isolating situation was not, that was not positive and also we just sort of realized that watching plays on Zoom just wasn't really what we're interested in doing. It was trying to put a one art form into a format that didn't really complement it. It didn't make it, you know, it did help it at all and obviously it's great to have the experience but I think that it's, it's a difficult medium to watch the shows in. At the same time we did a production of Alice in Wonderland as a radio show. Now I've done radio shows in my Theater Three classes I think alike the past 15 years and when we do regularly show, we pipe the sounds. So we have professional microphone setup in the Black Box we have a . . . I don't know but have you even seen the school since then it’s been rebuilt?
MIRCEA: I did, when I went back there in 2018 . . .
MIRCEA: I went back to New York City with my family and I did a whirlwind tour of Westport in about 1 hour or 2 hours cause we had
DAVID: Do you still have family there?
MIRCEA: I don't no. My mother moved to Western New York and my sisters now in Western New York as well and yeah my father, my mother have both passed but when I went there I actually drag them into Staples, obviously.
MIRCEA: We walked around inside the school and I can't remember what it was, it was um a Saturday I think maybe? We go in and were walking around there was staff there so it wasn't like we were you know, breaking in. I think we are in their right after school was let out.
MIRCEA: I did walk around, the theater was unfortunately was everything all the lights were shut off. But I did see Ziegahn's room or Ziegahn's office, and I think you have a sign over the door or someone like that right? DAVID: We do. MIRCEA: Yeah DAVID: There's a whole like to the right hand side of it there's whole like memorial that um Jim Wheeler who was an Art teacher and of Joe's best friends, he came back after Joe pass away and we asked him to sort of take all these things that Joe had made and to sort of create a sort of a I don't know a monument to Joe outside of his office, so that's there.
DAVID: But anyway, did you see the Black Box Theater?
MIRCEA: Was it to the
DAVID: You would have remembered. So it's directly across the hallway from where you know the hallway we would use for backstage, so the Four Building hallway. All those rooms that used to be Art rooms on the other side there.
DAVID: That is now my classroom and it's a 2500 square foot black box theatre like 200 seats. When they rebuild the school it was in the suspects and I kept thinking they were going to cut it, cause it was like, it was like was like oh my god that would be amazing and then they built it. So we have this beautiful black box theater that we can have a full rehearsal it's basically the same width as like the auditorium stage so we can have a full, full on rehearsal in there. And so we've been doing ever since we got that, we've been doing radio plays in their.
MIRCEA: Okay so that's where that is.
DAVID: As part of the Theater Three curriculum.
DAVID: And there's also they built jacks into the back walls so they could run the sound directly to the room and the room next door to us is the TV studio, and so that's where we run and that's where the radio station goes out of. So they purposely put the two next to each other so that we could, broadcast things. So we've been doing these radio plays with the live sound effects and the live music for many years and so we were in rehearsals for Alice in Wonderland when COVID hit last year and so we did Alice in Wonderland, we continued to rehearse it on Zoom and then rebroadcast from Zoom last year and so when we were talking to the officers at the beginning of this year about what they want to do and we talked about doing another virtual production because that's what most most high schools are doing right now. They're doing plays either by Zoom or I mean in some parts of the country they just do theater they don't worry about the masks and that type of stuff but we're not in that part of the country and we can't do that here, so when we talked to the officers about what they were interested in, we said we're looking at these virtual productions and they said "we want to do radio plays". Because several of them had been in Alice in Wonderland and they felt that, sort of because everybody was in the play the same time and sort of there together even though they weren't physically in the same space they were on the Zoom together and so the felt and that had much more of a feeling of like a play. You had the camaraderie amongst the students and you also had sort of the adrenaline of "we're live" and "we're going" and you know you have the beginning, the middle and once to play is over you have that big moment were you're just feeling like "Okay we did it!"
MIRCEA: That's great.
DAVID: So they wanted to do radio shows, and so we were like "OK" cause a lot of the when you do the the Zoom shows you have to pre-record so much of it too.
DAVID: And so they're not, there never really there together. And so we chose a season of three radio plays and the other great advantage with the radio plays is well first of all you're performing in a mode that they're intended to be performed we basically perform a play like the radio plays would have been done back in the thirties or the forties when people were doing live radio. There isn't anything that's being compromised because of COVID. We stand in front of a microphone and we do these we do these shows and so that to us was, was a huge plus. We didn't really want to a compromise or sort of a Frankenstein of a theater production we wanted to do something that was being done the way it was intended.
DAVID: And also I think currently there's with audio books and audio productions, I mean that's a really thriving well you know you're doing this podcast right? I mean thriving field of people just listening to things. You don't need to have a visual along with it. And the other advantage is when we, so we did our first two shows. We did Wizard of Oz and we did . . . oh Pride and Prejudice, we did those in the Black Box and we had 15 stalls setup basically with like a plastic it's like the see through curtains that you hang on like the sides of tents do you know?
DAVID: Or restaurants when they bring down the plastic so that you can still see through them? But so we have 15 like stalls or little like sectioned off things so that the kids are not breathing on each other and then we have microphones set up in that room and so the first two shows we performed that way even did some singing in Wizard of Oz and and and that type of stuff and then we got hit with ah what was it? Was it post Thanksgiving? I can remember we get basically the schools shut down because we just, ah we reached a point where there were too many teachers that were being quarantined and there weren't enough teachers, physical bodies, to be in the school to take care of the kids. So we had to shut down. And we were able to move our production of It's a Wonderful Life completely on to Zoom within like a week. So that's other really great advantage of doing a radio show is that if we have to, we can move it on to Zoom. And that's how we rehearse too. We don't we don't go into the Black Box until the final week, and that's when we put it all together. MIRCEA: When I was listening to It's a Wonderful Life, I think was driving to Colorado, but anyway, I was listening off of radio you know, a link so you were all still broadcasting live but you were doing it through Zoom
MIRCEA: Okay, interesting.
DAVID: And we actually . . . so we have most of our listeners listen to it online. And actually, we we found out that we couldn't, because we do live commercials, part of the way to sort of a pay for staff and to pay for loyalties and all of that type of stuff is that community has purchased commercials and so we perform those live including jingles and all that type of stuff. But you can't, WWWPT which is the Staples radio station that's a home not for profit.
DAVID: So you can't, can't do commercials. So we can't actually broadcast on that the only one we've been able to do live on the radio was last week we did Sorry Wrong Number and we didn't have any commercials cause it's a 30 minute play or 25 play with no brakes in it so we didn't do commercials during it. So that one we were able to broadcast both on online and on the radio.
MIRCEA Oh, I see.
DAVID: And then were so successful that people were tuning in and giving donations and stuff like so we added a 4th show. We added A Christmas Carol in December and we did that one when we still, we did on Zoom cause things were still kind of dicey then.
DAVID: Now we're in our second season were doing ah we just finished Sorry Wrong Number, were doing Little Women this weekend and then we're doing Dracula and then we're doing um
DAVID: A hysterically, a hysterically funny and sort of a parody on melodramas. So we're doing that one as well. That one we're doing just with the freshmen and the sophomores because of they haven't really had as much opportunity because the seniors, you know, this is their Senior year and they haven't been able to do, so they tend to, and they're more experienced anyways, so you know, but, but they tend to kind of dominate the casting pool.
DAVID: a lot of these shows. So we did a show just for the freshmen and sophomores because we're concerned about you know what's gonna happen if we can't perform for a while still. We don't want to lose, we don't want people to lose interest in, we don't want to lose our students 'cause we have, you know, usually we have about 100 people involved at all times so that's really valuable. We're a high school where we can have to do a show with you know 70 kids and 35 are boys and 35 girls and most high school theater programs their kind of dominated by by females cause a lot of guys don't necessarily, they want to do sports so their afraid of being embarrassed or that type of stuff. And I think that that's also that's the that's also something that's great about Staples is that I don't think there is a real stigmata for people that do theater. I mean you know you did soccer and you also did theater and it was like. I mean you may have gotten some you know a little bit of flak from your friends and that's the stuff I don't think it's it's that bad. You know what I mean?
DAVID: I feel like and I think a lot of people it's like if you put a great performance people in class the next week will be like "Oh my god that was great, I loved it" you know.
MIRCEA: Yeah, I remember that.
DAVID: So, so the students have that enthusiasm as well, so it's you know.
MIRCEA: The fun they had at the performance, yeah seeing that. So quick thing on the Zoom. Are they mic'd up with . . . high end mics? Or is it . . .
DAVID: We encourage parents to purchase I don't know the $40.00 level one from Amazon and I can't remember which one it was but our, our tech director for the radio shows the guy that basically does all the sound which we could not possibly do these shows without him, his name is Geno Heiter and he's one that makes everything sound so good so he, I sent in some possibilities you know they were easy to get from Amazon quickly so a lot of parents bought their kids microphones.
DAVID: Which, you know I think is a decent investment for this time anyway because you know . . .
MIRCEA: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
DAVID: its not a bad thing to have. And it was also we were coming on Christmas so I think a lot of people you know just were like "He's an Christmas present" so most of them were using higher quality some of them were using like wired headphones from like Apple headphones. Not Air Pods, because Air Pods they . . . you lose too much integrity anytime, well you know this, anytime you're going through the air, you're losing a lot of stuff. Hardwired is much better for sound and a so yeah they use you know that and then hopefully we'll be able to stay live, I mean we'll be able to be 'in person' in the theater for the rest of the shows. But we'll see.
MIRCEA: You mean as far as doing radio shows?
DAVID: Yeah, and if we can't, if we can't then we're prepared to switch over to Zoom.
DAVID: I mean one of the big things we lose is we're not able to have all the live sound effects that we're able to have when we're in the Black Box. We loose all the Foley stuff and we have to go to recorded sound effects.
MIRCEA: Oh you do? Okay.
DAVID: Although we were able to keep our fantastic Music Director, Don Rickenback who basically writes original scores to each of these radio plays and plays through the entire show and sort of give you that whole background music to it. He was still able to perform live from the school he was mixed in with the Zoom for the radio broadcast.
MIRCEA: That was going to be my next question, so the piano playing you hear in the background is live
DAVID: On constantly, yes.
MIRCEA: Wow that is great. I did see some picture, and yeah if you can post more.
MIRCEA: Wow that is great! Can alumni donations help . . . you now with the microphones and other stuff?
MIRCEA: And I'll provide links for that and all that on the page.
MIRCEA: So what does the future for you?
DAVID: You know I don't know, I don't know.
MIRCEA: A daunting question.
DAVID: We haven't planned past our last show which is last weekend in March. I don't know. We may do more radio, we may try to do some kind of we've talked about possibly trying to do a production live and film it, and you know and, and have the kids perform with masks. I don't know that we're going to be able to do anything with much of an audience, so I think we're probably going to end up, you know, broadcasting to home. I don't know. I'm hoping . . . my hope is that by next Fall, we can get back to normal or some aspect of normal.
DAVID: You know Fauci's saying things like movie theaters and stuff like that like, I think he's saying what mid to late Fall? So, I don't know.
MIRCEA: Yeah, everybody's taking a hit.
DAVID: I don't know. Hopefully people are going out and getting vaccinated that's what our hope is, you know to sort of move beyond this thing.
MIRCEA: Well I think the radio drama is excellent training especially for theater.
DAVID: Yeah, I agree.
MIRCEA: Because you can't rely on looks and everything has to be audio obviously, but um, I think it's great and I think it's great what you're doing this is a great conversation and I'm really enjoying this I um, I wanted to kind of finish up here because we're, we've been talking for a while. Is there anything you want to add that we didn't cover that you want to mention?
DAVID: I know, we covered so much!
MIRCEA: Yeah, we can do this again.
DAVID: I think ah, I just I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the radio shows and stuff like that. It is, it is something I think that it's it's great for the kids I think it's also you know, they may not get to do a show on stage but they also, you know, some of them have played eight different roles so far this year. So I mean they get the chance to do so much other stuff, but your enthusiasm for them and your support has really meant a lot to me and I really appreciate that.
MIRCEA: Do you wanna do any promotions for upcoming performances? I'm gonna obviously list these so when I post this I'll put links to the Staples Players. I'll also put up a schedule there.
DAVID: Just anybody can tune in anywhere in the world cause were online. I love hearing from people that have sort of found their own way to listen to it. You know some people it's like you said you can listen to it in the car. Some people have told us that they love to like turn off the lights, build a fire and you know just sit there and listen to it. Kerry and I did that for what was the um, I can't remember what the name of it was. It was about a guy that was convicted of murder and they tried to prove, it was a true story I think it was on NPR, we used to listen to that podcast and we would do the same thing and sometimes like for some of the shows we did special meals. So people when we did Pride and Prejudice there's a restaurant called Gruel Britannia that like a full on like English dinner you know with a sticky toffee pudding at the end . . .
MIRCEA: That's great!
DAVID: . . . and Cornish Game Hens and that type of stuff people find different ways to listen to them and people seem to really enjoy the novelty of being able to listen to it in your house, you know, and do other things or, or whatever you do during it.
DAVID: So people have been supportive and I hope we can continue to grow our audience. Like I said we're doing Little Women, were doing Dracula and we're doing The Marvelous Mellow Melodrama of the Miss . . . oh my god it's the longest title ever and I can never remember all of it but ah, of the Mislaid Minor. So and we're doing that one too and that's very, very funny. Gives kids a lot of chances to do accents, so ah, we love that.
MIRCEA: This is great! Well thank you so much David Roth.
DAVID: Thank you Mircea.
MIRCEA: Good friend for a number of years.
MIRCEA: We just recently reconnected probably about five years ago.
MIRCEA: Sorry it took that the long and I'm glad we did. A lot of people out there that were involved Staples Players in some way shape or form and thanks for coming out and talking with us David. Really appreciate it and it's . . .
DAVID: My pleasure.
MIRCEA: Great talking to you.
DAVID: Any time.
DAVID: Good luck.
MIRCEA: Thank you.
MIRCEA: You too David.
DAVID: Thank you! Alright talk to you later.
MIRCEA: Bye David.
MIRCEA: . . . Well, THAT . . . was awesome. I think (after that conversation) we can alllll agree that the Staples' Theater Department has been and continues to be in very good hands with David Roth at the helm. Wow. Let's give it up for a good friend and former Staples High School classmate David Roth. Thank you David!
I would also like to give a huge shout out to the Staples Players' wonderful community of supporters throughout all these years. Whether it's the parents and family members donating their time to help build sets, collect tickets, usher for the productions, drive their kids to and from rehearsals . . . OR . . . the local businesses that help finance the Players' performances and broadcasts with their generous donations and advertising, you are ALL very much appreciated.
Local businesses like Melissa and Doug Bernstein's company Melissa and Doug
By the way, both Melissa and Doug went to Staples, but that was long before . . . they were married. Mitchells of Westport
where, back in the early 80s, my mom purchased for me my very first blue sports jacket and charcoal gray slacks for my school's many orchestra, band and choir concerts. Thanks again for your help Ed, you and my mother were right, I really did look "snappy". I also want to thank for supporting the Staples Players, The Gault Family Companies
. Sam Gault . . . a Staples graduate as well. Erica and Julie of EA Homes of Westport
, Steve Madden of Westport
, Little Barn of Westport
. Did you know that two of three owners of the Little Barn, Scott Beck and Kevin McHugh, are Staples grads? Cynthia Gibb's theater school, the Triple Threat Academy
(oh yeah, she went to Staples), The Acting Gym of Westport
, Winged Monkey
, Leslie Clarke Homes
(all four of Leslie's kids went to Staples), Dan Perkins Subaru
of MILFORD Connecticut. . . (bravo Players . . . an out of town sponsor), and finally a business that stands out in my memory of growing up in Westport especially my early teen years . . . Honda of Westport
. . . where my dad purchased for my two older sisters, their very first car . . . to share. It was a red Honda Accord, and no . . . sadly for me, it didn't survive long enough for me to inherit . . . at no fault of the quality of the car, rather, I suspect, the quality of the teenage drivers? But that's a story . . . for another time and I digress. So, once again, thank you to the parents and the businesses of Westport for your dedication and support.
Now, one more thing before I leave, I would like to personally thank David for being such a great sport in taking the time to talk with ME, and agreeing to be MY very first interviewee on my new show Zuma Café. That takes some serious cajon - er courage, and a LOT of trust . . . trust in ME that I wouldn't embarrass HIM. I appreciate that David, and to prove that your trust was not misguided . . . here's a little clip of David singing "Willkommen" from our 1984 high school production of Cabaret. David played the Emcee and killed, while yours truly played the romantic lead Cliff Bradshaw, and unfortunately, did not kill. Perhaps . . . maybe . . . I maimed a little?
Nevertheless, please enjoy, and thank you so very, VERY much for listening!
[MUSIC: Cabaret Production]