Seattle Magazine

Despite Public-School Funding Crisis, Local High School Theater Soars

By March 15, 2019 No Comments

Generation ‘Glee’ takes Washington high school theater programs to new heights.

Ballard High School, which mounted ‘Les Misérables’ in March, is among the local schools that produce ambitious, award-worthy musicals year after year.

A handful of teens scurry around the stage in various early-1800s getups, while another group of kids, dressed in black, busily tend to props, lighting and wireless microphones. In the background, the musicians tune up, as theater director Shawn Riley barks directives.

It is March 7, one week until showtime for Ballard High School’s production of Les Misérables, and, typical for dress rehearsals, the chaos is kicking in.

Then, Diego Roberts Buceta, playing Jean Valjean, begins to sing his second-act solo, “Bring Him Home,” and time stands still. Could this resplendent sound really be coming from a high school senior who, up until ninth grade, was more focused on playing soccer? More scenes play out, and as the voices, the musicians and the actors blend their talent-fueled skills, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary high school musical.

But then, there’s nothing ordinary about the musical theater programs at many Seattle-area high schools. In addition to Ballard High School’s highly regarded program, Roosevelt High School, in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, has built a robust performing arts department, as has Kentridge High School in Kent, along with an array of schools in every corner of the state.

Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre celebrates the exceptional productions launched by schools like these at its annual 5th Avenue Awards: Honoring High School Musical Theater. This year’s ceremony—The 5th Avenue’s 15th—will be held June 12 at Benaroya Hall.

Call the awards the Tonys for teens. More than 90 high schools from across the state compete in the event, which 2,000 students, instructors and fans attend. Like the Tony Awards ceremony, the evening opens with a grand musical production (two students from each school participate) and recognizes schools in categories that include outstanding musical, actor, actress, direction, choreography and costume design. The award? A statue, of course.

The 5th Avenue’s producing artistic director, Bill Berry, began the program so that Washington state theater kids could enjoy the kinds of accolades and awards typically doled out to school athletes. “We’re happy we can do our part to focus on these kids for one night,” says Berry. Over the course of a school year, evaluators—all theater professionals—attend from 12 to 30 shows each and send every school feedback on its production. “The event connects young performers to each other—and gives them a boost of confidence,” Berry says. “They feel validated for something they love.”

Ballard High School has won multiple awards at the 5th Avenue event, and has been nominated for best musical four times. “Everyone is working toward that night,” says Riley.

And they’re working hard. Buceta, Ballard’s Jean Valjean, spends eight hours a day rehearsing. Everyone in the musical—more than 100 students, including those in the orchestra, cast and crew—convenes in the school’s theater each day after classes. Some come on weekends to build sets. Others design lighting. All of them, says Riley, “are here because they want to be here.”

That sentiment is echoed by the teens involved in the Roosevelt High School musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. The 140 students who work on the show, which ran May 25–June 4 (their productions often miss the mid-May deadline for the 5th Avenue Awards program), do much of their prep in class. 

That’s because Roosevelt, much like the mythical high school in the 1980s classic film Fame, features a theater department that’s extraordinarily deep in course offerings. There’s a class in playwriting, directing, script analysis, costume design and dance. Guest artists from Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) pay visits, and kids who enroll in “Book-It” learn techniques from Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre. The season includes Dramafest, a festival of one-act plays directed by students; Roughwriters, student-written and -performed plays directed by SCT professionals; the musical—and more. 

Lydia Ippolito, a Roosevelt senior, plays the sidekick, Cookie, in Nice Work. The school is “known for putting on high-caliber shows,” she says. She has acted, sung and danced in them since she was a freshman. Auditions are rigorous, says Ippolito, “but that competitive air brings people who are passionate.” 

The arts, and particularly the high school musical, are deeply embedded in the school’s culture, says Roosevelt’s theater director, Ben Stuart, who took over after legendary director Ruben Van Kempen retired two years ago. Van Kempen, Roosevelt’s theater director and arts educator for 37 years, is widely credited with developing the school’s popular, highly acclaimed program. “It’s not uncommon to have football players and cheerleaders try out—and tell their friends to do it,” says Stuart, who encourages his students to go to festivals, see work being done by other schools and attend Seattle-area shows. “Our kids come back inspired, and that makes them work harder.”

And thanks to what Stuart calls the Hamilton effect, Roosevelt’s musicals have become more inclusive and diverse. “There are kids of color, low-income kids, others with disabilities,” says Stuart. “We cast nontraditionally; we are blowing up the idea that you can’t play a part because you look a certain way.” 

Few high school musicals can claim to showcase as much diversity as Kentridge High School’s production of The Wiz, which ran May 3–13. “Our version has a white Scarecrow, an Asian Tin Man, a black Lion and black Wicked Witch—and the Munchkins are all over the board,” says drama teacher and artistic director Jennifer Grajewski.

In the past decade, the student population at Kentridge, in the Kent School District, has shifted dramatically—from 75 percent Caucasian to a majority-minority school, she notes. “The change here has been rapid,” says Grajewski. “As Seattle became more expensive, people began moving out.” At one time, 15 percent of Kentridge students were on the free or reduced-price lunch program; that number has jumped to 30 percent, she says.  

While other high school drama programs attract kids with dance or music backgrounds, says Grajewski, “I don’t get any of these.” Yet the school turns out stellar shows. In fact, last year, Kentridge won the “Outstanding Musical” prize at the 5th Avenue Awards ceremony for its production of Hairspray—and was nominated for 14 other awards.  

The school stages musicals that “speak to the community,” says Grajewski. Hairspray deals with racial integration. Bring It On, the school’s 2015 musical, addresses stereotyping, discrimination and what winning really means. 

And for some Kentridge students, the theater program is a haven. Many of them live in difficult home situations, says Grajewski. “These are not privileged kids; some would be on the street. This becomes a home, a safe place to land. It saves them.”


Kentridge High School cast members for The Wiz, from left, Chandler McBride (Dorothy), Jason Hardy (Scarecrow), and Jason Bui (Tinman).

What makes these high school musical programs, well, sing? One common denominator: the standout directors, choreographers and choral leaders who make the magic happen. 

“When you put together a team that’s passionate about the arts you are doing, the kids latch on to that,” says Courtney Rowley, Ballard High School choir director. Instructors look for—and expect—excellence, she says. “The kids step up and rise to the occasion.”

“We’re lucky,” says Meg Shepherd, who played Fantine in Les Misérables. She chose Ballard High School for its performing arts program—and its teachers. “They are beyond talented.” And they’re devoted. “I eat, live and dream this stuff,” says Riley, Ballard’s theater director.

Roosevelt’s Ippolito credits Ben Stuart and choreographer Katie Greve with transforming the school’s theater program and building a sense of community. “They want you to succeed,” adds Nice Work lead actor Duncan Weinland.

When Grajewski took over the Kentridge drama program 12 years ago, the 15 students in it performed for an audience of 13. Today, nearly 100 students are involved in The Wiz—and crowds of more than 400 regularly fill the theater. Growing the program has taken patience and passion. “These kids want to learn,” she says. “It’s just a matter of believing in them.” 

The rich selection of professional plays and musicals in the Seattle area also powers high school performing arts programs, which can’t help but glow in the reflection of the city’s vibrant theater culture. “Seattle has always been at an intersection where ideas and different kinds of people come together,” says Orlando Morales, director of education and outreach for The 5th Avenue Theatre. “This fosters creativity and thought.” 

And thanks to local arts organizations and private donors, teens have access to theater, dance and visual arts through TeenTix, a pass that, for $5, gets them into exhibits and performances. “Our city has said it’s important for young people to see stage productions, art and museums,” says Stuart. “They see shows—and then they catch the bug.” 

Other reasons kids are flocking to the footlights these days? Turns out it’s just a cool thing to do. After all, this generation grew up on High School MusicalGlee, live television extravaganzas such as Greaseand Hairspray, and now, the rapping, hip-hopping Hamilton. And, as Grajewski points out, “The kids love that.”

Photo by Hayley Young

Students at Roosevelt High School work on building sets and sewing costumes for their spring musical, Nice Work If You Can Get It. The school offers a variety of theater-oriented classes, from playwriting to costume design.

In an era when cuts to school arts programs are commonplace, and in a state where basic education is not yet fully funded, finding pockets of theater excellence is striking, particularly at a school like Kentridge, where affluence among the student population is not the norm.

Production costs for shows vary widely. The rights to scripts and musical arrangements can be pricey—Grajewski pays from $2,000 to $8,000 for them—as can costumes, sets and technical essentials such as lighting and sound. The Wiz has some “big-ticket items” in technology, says Grajewski, and the rights cost $5,000.

Typically, schools finance their theater programs through fundraising. Grajewski writes grants to raise funds for The Wiz and other musicals, and students organize car washes. However, ticket sales, at $10 each—the school stages 10 performances of every musical—more than pay for the production. The price tag for this year: close to $30,000.  

Ballard High School’s theater department “doesn’t get one dime” from the school for its musical, which costs $12,000–$15,000, says Riley. But it does have the Ballard Performing Arts Booster Club, which mounts galas and dinners. In addition, the kids in the musical sell ads for the programs; between ad sales, donations and ticket sales, Riley always turns a profit. He uses that revenue to help finance upcoming productions or buy equipment and other items. 

Parents, students and community members also raise funds for Roosevelt’s musical production, which will run close to $50,000 for Nice Work, says Stuart. The program gets no extra stipends (“Not like the athletic department,” he points out) and counts on the kids in the show to raise $400 each. Like Ballard’s, Roosevelt’s support club, Theatre Boosters, brings in additional revenue. 

The good news? Even schools with small budgets can generate big results. “We see these little scrappy schools doing great work,” says Berry. The 5th Avenue Theatre awards program “shows appreciation” for what schools can accomplish with limited resources, says Connie Corrick, 5th Avenue’s student program manager. “The point of theater is to tell a story. That can be done with minimal staging and budgets.”  

For some kids, high school musicals are just the beginning. Since college, Aaron Johnson, a 2011 Kentridge graduate, has appeared in 5th Avenue Theatre and Village Theatre productions, and in the TV series Younger. Ballard grads Elizabeth Palasz and Aisha Carpenter are both in the biz: Palasz is pursuing roles on Broadway, and Carpenter sings at New York City cabarets. Roosevelt’s star-studded alumni include Chad Kimball (Class of 1995), now in Broadway’s Come from Away; Solea Pfeiffer (Class of 2012), who’s in the national tour of Hamilton; and Charlie Marcus (Class of 1984), currently in Broadway’s A Bronx Tale.  

The reality, though, is that most young actors, hoofers and crooners don’t end up on a stage or a screen. But the savvy, skills and smarts gleaned from helping shape those high school spectaculars serve them well, says Riley. “They learn about teamwork. About meeting deadlines. About how to step into someone else’s shoes,” he says. “And they can take those skills into any profession they choose.”