The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals
Thinking Out of the Box
Producer & Musical Director
Northern Valley Old Tappan High School, NJ
Profile by John Kenrick
In some cases, the challenge is not to get a performing arts program started, but rather to keep it going in the face of staff changes and financial uncertainty. Curt Ebersole was fresh out of Northwestern University when he was hired by the music department at Northern Valley Old Tappan High School in Bergen County, New Jersey. Trained to teach and conduct a band, he was also expected to serve as producer and musical director of the annual all-school musical.
Ebersole had taken part in amateur musicals, but had never seen himself as the one in charge. "I did pit orchestras in high school," he says, "and played lead roles in two musicals, but I had no experience at producing or conducting. NVOT's outgoing music chair had been there 25 years and had initiated the tradition of annual school productions. I got to watch him that first year and learn a whole new way of doing shows. I also had to learn about hiring professionals for the pit orchestra, and integrating them with the students. The next year, I was pretty much on my own and still learning by doing, which was exhausting. In my third year, a new faculty member was willing to collaborate with me. She served as director, I served as musical director, and we shared the title and duties of producer."
The arrangement worked well, and as NVOT's reputation grew, Ebersole found himself enjoying the production process. "I love conducting the pit, first and foremost," he says, "and the opportunity to work with an integrated group of kids and professional musicians. There's nothing like showing the kids what its like to work under real professional conditions, and seeing them meet that challenge. I love being the motivator from the pit, driving the performance from the podium. I get excited about that responsibility. And of course, I love seeing the cast and crew develop from a group of individuals into a committed, well-oiled machine through the weeks of rehearsals - and seeing them develop real leadership, and a real sense of responsibility for their jobs."
Rather than exist at the mercy of school budgets, Ebersole kept the annual musicals self-supporting, covering all production expenses with ticket and ad sales. Because of NVOT's proximity to New York City, it has been possible to hire musicians and production consultants with Broadway credentials. Other theatrical professionals who live in the community have volunteered their services over the years. The results led to numerous honors, including 2 Helen Hayes Theatre Awards and 19 Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards.
One of the facts of theatrical life is that priorities can change, as Ebersole learned when his director and co-producer left the team to meet to other important commitments. Since then, Ebersole has served as producer and musical director, all the while maintaining a demanding teaching schedule. Others have filled the role of stage director over the years, but the transition periods can be stressful. "Whenever certain leadership moved on, I had to step in to varying degrees, and it was too much to handle with all my other responsibilities. I hated dealing with aspects of backstage production I was not familiar with. Then there are management and discipline issues. Someone has to be the final authority onstage and backstage - that's how it has to be. I cannot do that, conduct and produce at the same time."
When asked what has kept him doing these shows at NVOT for more than a quarter century, Ebersole replies, "The fact that I can get up in the morning and do these things when so many cannot motivates me. Beyond that, I feel a real obligation to those who came before me. We're talking about a tradition that stretches back more than four decades." For NVOT's 40th production, Ebersole brought back The King and I, which had been the school's first show. "A dozen members of the 1963 cast came back for the 2003 production," he says, "with our original King flying all the way up from Florida. What a sense of pride and history that gave the kids."
As far as Ebersole is concerned, school shows are first and foremost about the students. He says, "Being part of these productions teaches them respect, teamwork, and also the value of introspection. They have to analyze characters, and face someone else's problems - a challenge for any teenager. Beyond that, there is so much to learn and do. And when the curtain opens, there are no excuses - they have to deliver. And not just the actors! The kids backstage must take real initiative, and they do, year after year. I don't know any better training for the real-life challenges and responsibilities they will have to face as adults."
Mr. Ebersole may not have planned on producing amateur theatre for several decades, but as an award-wining educator (New Jersey Master Music Teacher Award for 2003), he has come to see the annual school musical as a vital contribution to the lives of his students. "Musical theatre is the most complete art form we have, because it brings together so many other art forms at their highest. Even when former students come back to tell you that these shows affected their lives in a lasting way, you've got to feel great."