A few years back, Susi Cummings, the poobah at Putnam Valley High School’s PAC, began the Stage Managers in Training program, to teach kids all things technical in the world of stagecraft.
They would learn from upperclassmen.
They would learn from the professionals who design sets, lights, costumes and props.
There would be trips to scene shops.
One of those first SMITs, as they are called, is graduating this spring.
Senior Rachel Fitzgerald, at 17, has a porfolio of work impressive enough to land her a coveted spot studying Theater Production Arts at the prestigious Ithaca College next fall. Hundreds of kids try to get in. They take 16. Fitzgerald is one of the 16.
(That’s Fitzgerald, above, delivering a perfect stage manager’s glare, the “what are you doing in MY stage-left wing” glare. I asked her to do it.)
She started as a SMIT as a first-semester freshman; the next semester, she was assistant stage manager for “Urinetown.”
“Susi recruited me from the day I walked in,” she says. “I knew nothing. She said ‘You! Come and do stage crew!’”
“For me, all the backstage stuff was so much fun to learn, finding out how much goes into it — lighting, sets and sound, and the actors and director. I like to lead things.”
At her Ithaca interview, they tried to steer her toward stage-management, as that’s where her attention was focused in high school.
“I told them, ‘Well, that was my way of staying involved,’” she says with a laugh. But she chose to pursue Theater Production Arts — which can be either technology or design. If she chooses design (she’s not sure yet), that’d mean learning to design sets, sound and lighting, as Ithaca’s program is one of the few to allow students to try their hands at all aspects of design, not pigeonholing them into lights or sound or sets.
“They say it’s like five years of work in four,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.”
Ithaca was the only arts school she applied to. If she didn’t get in, all of her other applications were to study nursing.
Fitzgerald says she was a bundle of nerves at the interview, seeing other prospective students with huge portfolios. “There I was with this little binder that I put together in two days,” she says. Inside the binder were photos from all of the sets she had helped to build — fall dramas and spring musicals from her four years working under professional designers on the Putnam Valley stage.
“Our sets have been phenomenal,” she says. “Our ‘Noises Off’ set was ridiculous. It turned. And they were blown away by the pictures. For a high-school production, to get to work with all those professionals has been amazing.”
A scholarship was offered. And accepted.
Looking back on her high-school career, her lasting memory is getting involved her freshman year, answering Cummings’ call.
“All of the seniors took me under their wing. I learned so much that first year being here and that was definitely my most memorable year.”
One of the great strengths of the theater program at Putnam Valley, Fitzgerald says, is its diversity.
“We have athletes who participate, scholar-students who participate and your more typical theater kids who participate. I’ve been to other schools’ theater programs and they say ‘You’re the school where the athletes act!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Fitzgerald’s final musical at Put Valley is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” April 20-22, going out on a comedy. Watch some of the cast members delivering their favorite lines here.