After 37 straight years presenting big musicals at Clarkstown High School South, the venerable Clarkstown Summer Theater Festival is taking the summer off.
The board of trustess of the festival, known simply as “summer theater” for generations, posted a terse note yesterday on the Clarkstown Summer Theater website. It read: “Dear Friends of CSTF, We are saddened to report that CSTF will not have a show this year, due to these economic times that we are all living through. However the good news is that we will be reorganizing during the year and planning for our future! Thanks for all your support.”
Beneath that note was the logo of the summer’s planned show, “Bye Bye, Birdie” with the word “cancelled” pasted across it.
Jack Rosen, a 21-year veteran of summer theater and currently the board second vice president, said yesterday that a successful fund-raiser put the group in good shape to begin the festival’s 38th summer, but that registration was way off from past years, prompting the decision to say bye-bye to “Birdie.”
“The biggest problem was getting students to sign up,” Rosen said. “The board set a budget based on 35 kids signing up and we were way under that after the deadline passed. It was not even close. We couldn’t hire a creative team and then tell them, ‘Oh, sorry. You’ve planned your summer but not enough kids signed up.’”
Rosen, a past festival president, said he’s not sure if the festival will return next year.
“Maybe we’ve just run our course,” he said.
Last summer’s production of “Celebrate CSTF!” — a revue of past shows over the festival’s 37 years — ended abruptly when a rights-granting company informed producers that they did not have permission to present songs without paying for the rights. Producers had no alternative but to cancel the second weekend of shows, which were directed by Joe Egan, the director at Nyack High School.
There are several children’s theater options across Rockland — from Helen Hayes Youth Theater in Nyack to Stage Left Children’s Theater in Tappan and Children’s Shakespeare Theater in Palisades. But CSTF cast the longest shadow, counting among its alumni Phil Rosenthal, the New City kid who went on to create and produce “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“I pray that they come back,” said Danielle Rudess, the founder of Helen Hayes Youth Theater. “It has been an institution in this county, a fantastic place for kids. It’s for very serious theater kids, but also for kids who just want to explore theater for the very first time. And it’s been great evening entertainment for the kids. It’s heart-breaking.”
Rudess surmised that the choice of “Bye Bye, Birdie” — a show that has been done by her group and by several high schools recently — might have played a role in the drop in registrations.
“With high-school kids, especially serious theater kids, you have to do current stuff. That’s why we’ve done ‘The Wedding Singer,’ ‘Drowsy Chaperone,’ ‘(25th Annual Putnam County) Spelling Bee’ and ‘Rent,’ in the past two years. We talk about what they want to do. I might have chosen ‘Drowsy,’ but I wouldn’t have chosen those other shows. And they get so excited about it,” she said.
Youth-theater kids vote with their feet, Rudess said. They’ll go where the show is and not really worry about which group is doing it.
Rudess said an exception to that trend is Croton Teen Theater, another long-standing group for hometown theater, which this summer presents “My Fair Lady” and “Deathtrap.”
“They can throw anything at those kids and they’ll show up. And that used to be the way it was at Clarkstown Summer Theater Festival. But somehow it stopped being the go-to place.”
Turnover in the directorial ranks may have been an issue as the CSTF board has hired different directors from year to year, meaning creative continuity flagged. Kids wouldn’t know if their favorite director — the one with whom they had built a rapport — would be back the following year.
There may be another aspect to summer theater’s woes, one indirectly of its own making.
Two former directors at the festival — Sol Bloch and Justin Boccitto — have just launched a summer-theater program of their own: The New Generation Theatre, billed as a “summer theatre intensive for young performers.”
Bloch, the choral director at Fieldstone Secondary School, and Boccitto, who directs musicals at Clarkstown South, team up to direct musicals at North Rockland High School. That would seem to give them an inside track to attract students willing to pay the $350 tuition for the six-week camp, which culminates Aug. 18, 19 and 20 with performances of “The Who’s Tommy,” pending rights approval.
Ironically, it was the festival that gave New York-based Boccitto his first job in Rockland. After choreographing “Crazy for You” and several other shows, he came to the attention of Rudess, who hired him for several shows over the following three years. The festival is where Boccitto met Bloch.
While New Generation Theatre has yet to finalize where it will rehearse and perform, Boccitto said Fieldstone and Clarkstown South have both been discussed as options. The news of summer theater’s demise creates an opening at Clarkstown South, one of the county’s few large, air-conditioned venues that can be rented.
While CSTF and New Generation both cater to the same demographic — eighth-graders to graduating seniors — Boccitto said it was not about competition, adding that his and Bloch’s troupe would present works like “Tommy” that the festival would not approach.
Rosen said there might be something to the idea that the choice of “Birdie” — about an Elvis-type character visiting Sweet Apple, Ohio — played a role in the festival’s decline.
“They’re doing ‘Tommy,’ which is more contemporary. We were doing ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Our problem is that we’ve done cornball stuff, old hat,” Rosen said.
But he also said that some kids might not have registered because a parent lost a job, making them unable to afford summer theater’s tuition, which is the same as New Generation’s: $350.
“As far as our group, it’s really sad,” Rosen said. “But if Justin’s group succeeds and something can rise out of the ashes, it’s fine. It’s really all about the kids and giving them something to do that’s constructive. Maybe our time has come and gone.”