In any given month, the auditorium’s curtain might rise on a number of performances across programs at PHS. While these may range from a spontaneous a cappella concert to a big band dance to a Shakespeare play, only two things are constant. The first is apparent to anyone in the audience: PHS has a wealth of performing talent in every artistic discipline. But what remains purposefully hidden is the work of dozens of students behind the scenes.
Perhaps the most obvious place in which student managers, technicians, and designers help artists practice their crafts is the theater.
“The students do all the actual work for the productions in the PAC, everything from hanging lights to building scenery to loading in and running the shows,” said Jeff Van Velsor, the Technical Director of the PAC. “I’m impressed by their level of dedication and commitment to the program; they really take ownership of the productions.”
That’s no small responsibility when working on productions like the fall play or the spring musical. Those larger shows require around 12 student technicians, in addition to costume, makeup, and front-of-house volunteers. Just building the sets can take up to three months, and that’s before an intensive three-week tech period leading up to the show. During that time, students work into the evening up to six days a week to put the show together.
This often requires students with no formal training doing a professional’s job in highly technical areas such as light and sound. They must combine specialized knowledge with artistic talent to craft the world around the actor’s performances.
This “allows the stage [to] look natural because the point of the show is to convince people that the show is real and happening right now,” said Lighting Designer Alex Rey ’17. His job is to create lighting subtle enough that “the audience doesn’t notice that there is artificial lighting in any way.”
To make their work go unnoticed might seem like a thankless job, it brings a rush to the students who work backstage.
“During a show, there’s always a nervous energy. It comes from the actors getting ready to go out for their scenes, as well as from the crew making sure to make their tech cues on time. This energy is what makes live theater scary, but also exciting and what causes those working in theater to always come back for more,” said Spectacle Theatre President and performer Amanda Bank ’17. She oversees large groups of makeup artists, costumers, ticket sellers, and ushers to make sure that every performance is as professional as it can be.
“We’ve been really fortunate to get large donations of [stage] makeup from local opera and theatre companies. Makeup can really take a show to the next level, because it brings so much to the characters, whether they need old age makeup or or any kind of special effects. It adds dimension and clarity to the expressions of the actors,” said Head of Makeup Helen Schrayer ’18.
But theater isn’t the only discipline with dedication on and offstage. The award-winning Princeton High School Studio Band has a team of two dedicated managers, Caren Ju ’18 and Isabel Figueroa ’19, who make sure that the performances run smoothly. These two are responsible for setting up instruments, stands, and equipment for all of the Studio Band performances, as well as running the soundboard “so [the teachers] don’t need to worry about it,” Ju said. At band practices, they work on organizing music and overseeing the band, but at performances, band director Joseph Bongiovi relies on them as the backbone of the performances, to make sure everything goes well.“It’s a great experience for both of us, I think, because I sing and she plays piano, so it’s a really nice musical outlet,” said Ju, who has been a manager for three years.
“The band department is so different from all the programs like the choir or theater or orchestra, and I’ve grown so much because of it,” said Figueroa, remarking on her first year as a Studio Band manager.
The leaders of the school’s four student-run a cappella groups are the driving force behind the sound that has made their performances so popular. Each ensemble has presidents that handle finding the group’s gigs, scheduling rehearsals, and planning social functions. However, it’s the music directors that are truly responsible for forming the sound of each group. They oversee the choosing, arranging, teaching, and fine tuning of repertoire. They need keenly-developed musical ears to do a job usually done by someone with a music degree.
“I would say the toughest thing is, after teaching everybody their part, to make a sound that’s clear and unique,” said Zane Zapata ’17, the music director of Around 8. “When I work so hard to bring these people’s voices together, especially when they’re so beautiful, hearing them come together and making our unique sound for the first time is so rewarding because I helped create that.”
That pride in creating a beautiful product is all the reward these students need. The performers are happy in the spotlight and so is the crew behind it.