August 16, 2011 2 Comments
I do not watch the television show Glee and I thank my lucky stars for that. I once had the misfortune of watching an episode (sorry, Tara) and remember trying to comprehend the reason for its enormous popularity. As a theater teacher and director, it all seemed so phony and so exaggerated to me. I couldn’t help but feel insulted as a viewer. From my experience, this was not a genuine reflection of the arts and musical theatre in the high school arena.
I’ve had many jobs in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that being a high school English and theater teacher was the most challenging job I ever had. But even with the many difficulties, obstacles, and hardships that I encountered directing the school’s theatrical productions each year, it was also the most rewarding work experience I have ever had – by far. Whether it was for the school’s annual musical or a scene worked on in drama class, the level of talent these kids displayed never ceased to amaze and confound me. The experience also proved to me that, when given the opportunity, kids of any age, from any background, can accomplish nearly anything. So many of my former students – several of whom I still keep in contact with and am forever grateful for knowing — inspired me to work harder to make our productions look as professional as possible. The experiences are cemented in my memory and I will take with me wherever I go – all because of the remarkable students I had.
So why am I sharing this personal information here on my film blog? Well, I recently watched the documentary Most Valuable Players directed by Matthew D. Kallis – and I must say, as a person who works in theatre and has taught HS drama, that I was moved and inspired by this rousing little film. The movie follows three (of the competing 27) high school theatre troupes in Lehigh Valley, PA on their way to the annual Freddy Awards, which are treated like the Tony Awards of high school musicals in the area. Like many areas across the country, Lehigh Valley is a sports-driven community – so much money, press, and attention is spent on athletics. This is a great thing. However, many school districts in our country have had severe budget cuts to their performing arts departments – some schools wiping the arts off the map completely. This is not a great thing and in fact, quite sad as the performing arts can provide so much to our youth, as illustrated in Kallis’ film.
I was amazed at the tremendous enthusiasm throughout the community surrounding the Freddy Awards – and not just from the students participating. The nominations are announced live on local television – and the ceremony itself is televised live and broadcast to millions of local homes. And just look at how packed that theatre gets for this annual event! The ceremony is held at the historic State Theatre in Easton, PA and is the brainchild of former PBS producer Shelley Brown. Shelley is in much of the documentary and her level of commitment to the arts, the Freddy’s, the students, and the community is beyond reproach. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish I was still directing high school students in wonderful musicals and plays – for no other reason than seeing the joy in all of their faces and the level of commitment made by faculty and students alike.
Most Valuable Players may not be the most important documentary made this year – but it does serve as a wake-up call concerning arts education in America. It shows us why the performing arts must remain in our schools and offered to young people who want to take part. Sure, the Freddy Awards provide these students with added incentive to push even harder (and the competitive nature of the ceremony is touched upon) – but really, you can clearly see just how dedicated they would be without them. As for the theatre instructors, their allegiance to their kids and exemplary work ethic is a wonder to watch. I only wish that every school district took part in something very much like this – it would make a significant difference in the lives of so many.
And the Good News: You don’t have to wait for Most Valuable Players to play at an art-house theater near you — or come out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The film was picked up by Oprah’s Winfrey’s channel (OWN) — and you can watch it Thursday, September 8th at 9:00pm EST. If you are a theatre-lover, an educator, a student, or (heaven forbid) actually watch Glee — this movie is a must-see!