Theatrical traditions leave big shoes.
For more than a generation, Cary Fuller was the gentle hand at the tiller at Rye Country Day School, creating a theatrical community where, each winter, teachers and administrators would let down their guards and take part in the upper school musical. Working alongside their students gave them a creative outlet but also gave their students a glimpse behind the authority figure. They’re not so bad, the kids came to learn.
A musical, after all, is a great leveler: Whether its a tricky dance combination or the blocking of a scene with dozens of bodies on stage, theater isn’t for the weak of mind or heart.
When Fuller retired, the torch was passed, but that torchbearer left after a short time.
This year, Jay Gerlach steps in to pick up that torch. He studied theater at Illinois State and is a veteran of the Roundabout Theater Company, where he worked with teachers on coordinating talkbacks and bringing theater into the classroom, Gerlach comes to the private school on Cedar Street with plans.
“In the late ’90s when the arts were cut in public schools, non-profits took on the responsibility of teaching the arts and going into the schools. So Roundabout transformed classrooms into theaters and theaters into classrooms. We would work in conjunction with the Roundabout’s shows. The kids would read ‘Streetcar’ and I would coordinate the talkback with the cast after the kids saw the show.”
He taught in the NYC public schools until 2010, when his school on the Lower East Side was shuttered.
He owes his gig teaching at Rye Country Day, in a way, to Donny Osmond.
“Years ago, I worked with Becky Timms, who used to teach dance here. We worked in a Chicago company of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ starring Donny Osmond. I reconnected with her years later and, just when my school closed, this opportunity opened.”
He was hired as the middle school drama teacher and found “kids who liked to do theater, were inspired by theater, but who were doing more theater outside of school than inside school.”
There are a lot of youth theater groups down-county that the kids flock to, whether it’s Westchester Sandbox, Random Farms, PlayGroup Theater or Irvington’s Clocktower Players.
“When I took over as head, I said, ‘Let’s take all of your outside theater stuff and bring it — whoosh — right here.’ They still do a lot of outside, and we tailor it to their schedules, but our huge cast is proof that our students are building connections right here. We rejoined the International Thespian Society and have a really active Drama Club. At Drama Club meetings, we’ll have anywhere from 25 to 40 students, which is huge.”
Next up is a colorful production of “Guys and Dolls” that owes its color pallette to the “Dick Tracy” movie that starred Warren Beatty and Madonna. Think bright yellows and reds and brilliant colors. Runyonland is full of colorful characters to begin with; Gerlach plans to up the ante even more.
“The character of Adelaide and Madonna are so similar,” the director says with a laugh. “And ‘Dick Tracy’ is one of my favorite movies. I’ve always wanted to take those colors and put them into ‘Guys and Dolls.'”
He also has some casting surprises up his sleeve. Staff members will still share the stage, largely as members of Sister Sarah’s Save-A-Soul Mission band. The big surprise, concerning a well-heeled shooter from a Midwest burg, will have to wait till opening night. (It’s a doozy.)
Performances are 7:30 p.m., Feb. 21 and 22. $18; 914.967-1417; ryecountryday.org.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Rye Country Day. Enjoy.