March 02, 2010

Don't let the curtain fall on NYSTI

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: New York Teacher
Caption: Claire Hamelin practices balance and juggling under the watchful eye of John McGuire, a UUP member and one of the founders of NYSTI. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The sweet scent of fresh-cut lumber fills the Set Design Shop at the New York State Theatre Institute in downtown Troy, Rensselaer County. In the Costume Shop two blocks away, an intern works the sewing machine. And on the stage, actors block out a fight sequence from Romeo and Juliet.

You would never know that this forthcoming production of Shakespeare's story of star-crossed lovers could also be one of NYSTI's last.

In the consummate tradition of theater, everyone at NYSTI believes not only that the show must go on, but that it will.

The facts, however, speak to a state budget that could permanently darken the stage at NYSTI — the beloved theater group which has introduced more than a generation of children to a magical world of drama, comedy and classics.

Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget would cut NYSTI's funding nearly in half in Fiscal Year 2010-11, from $3 million to $1.289 million. All state funding would end the following year, with NYSTI left to subsist on ticket sales and donations.

If that happens, NYSTI cannot survive.

"This certainly could be our last season," says John Romeo, a longtime actor/teacher at NYSTI who also heads the United University Professions chapter there. (NYSTI consistently boasts 100 percent UUP membership for its 25 eligible employees.) "We would have to lay off probably half our staff in April if that first cut comes through, which would cripple the program. We don't have that depth of staff; we have one person per job."

Additionally, a NYSTI closing would affect dozens of other people in the Capital Region who work as freelance technicians, actors, scenic artists and stage hands, Romeo said.

The state Legislature created the theatre institute in 1974 as a professional drama company that would also provide an educational component. NYSTI describes itself as "professional theatre for a family audience," and school groups who might otherwise have never seen a play are always part of that audience. The NYSTI complex is part of Troy's Russell Sage College campus.

NYSTI is also a proving ground for interns from high school to graduate school. A number of NYSTI employees trace their careers to their internships.

"Not only would closing NYSTI be detrimental to the interns, but it would be detrimental to the schools that come to see us. Arts education is really important to children's education," said Rebekah Barton, a senior at Russell Sage who studies business and theater. Her brother and fellow NYSTI intern, Jared Barton, is a senior at Cobleskill-Richmond High School.

NYSTI staff members incorporate the educational component in their productions in many ways: through interactive classroom presentations and study guides; by hosting "post performance classes" for students; and through professional development for teachers.

Interns such as the Bartons know that while they learn, they also reach younger students.
"I've been here 2 1/2 weeks, and I've already learned more than I could ever have imagined about what it's like to really work in theater," said Jared Barton, who wants to continue theater studies in college.

UUP refuses to accept the governor's budget proposal as inevitable. UUP President Phil Smith has made the plan to eliminate NYSTI a central theme in the UUP campaign to explain why cuts to education are so harmful to New Yorkers.

"NYSTI provides a unique cultural service to our children," Smith said. "It enhances the traditional educational services provided by public schools, and it cannot surive on just ticket sales. We urge the Legislature to reject these severe cuts."

Dozens of NYSTI supporters were among the hundreds of unionists at a recent UUP rally at the Capitol to protest the governor's budget proposal. NYSTI members were there again in force for NYSUT's Committee of 100 advocacy effort a few days ago.

Shortly after NYSTI members got news of the governor's massive funding cuts, they started preparing for the current performance of Romeo and Juliet.

This contemporary production runs until March 24 and is set in modern-day Iraq, with Sunni and Shia neighbors portraying the feuding Montagues and Capulets.

As the cast discussed different ways to bring Shakespeare to life for K-12 students, the mood was one of creative energy, not despair. Education Director Christine Saplin divided the cast into groups, and after 10 minutes of improvisational rehearsals, cast members performed their interpretations for their colleagues.

"This is the way I try to get them to think about what they'll do with the students," Saplin explained. "I always have to take risks with lesson planning. If this works, then Shakespeare becomes more accessible to students."

One team sent text messages of their sonnet back and forth to each other, and read the messages aloud as they received them. Another gave a dramatic reading of the sonnet that presented both the original language and an edgy, modern interpretation.

Afterward, the cast critiqued the performances. All agreed that seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time is better than just reading it in the classroom.

"It's language out loud — it has to be heard to be understood," teacher/actor John McGuire, a founding member of NYSTI, told his colleagues.

The cast of NYSTI hopes that the governor and the Legislature are ready to listen.