Vail Mountain School presenting iconic ‘Up the Down Staircase,’ Dec. 1-3
Special to the Daily
If You Go ...
What: “Up The Down Staircase,” Vail Mountain School Upper School theater department production.
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, through Saturday, Dec. 3.
Where: Vail Mountain School’s Peter Abuisi Auditorium, 3000 Booth Falls Road, Vail.
More information: Buy tickets at the door or online at www.vms.edu/tickets. The show runs about two hours.
Peace and love were a big part of the late 1960s. However, while this idealism was being embraced by popular culture, the blight of poverty and cultural conflict was running rampant in America’s inner cities, trapping young adults looking for a way out. Neighborhoods received cautionary monikers such as “Hell’s Kitchen” or the “Combat Zone,” warning outsiders of the potential peril that awaited those who strayed into these crime-stricken areas. Education suffered at the hands of cynical bureaucrats who all but hamstrung the well-intentioned teachers who served selflessly, despite desperate conditions.
Enter Sylvia Barrett, the protagonist in “Up the Down Staircase,” which takes the stage at Vail Mountain School this Thursday through Saturday. Originally a novel by Bel Kaufman, “Up the Down Staircase” was published in 1964 and spent more than a year on the New York Times’ best-seller list. It also inspired the famous 1967 film adaptation starring Sandy Dennis.
Ms. Barrett is a young, idealistic English teacher who takes a job at Calvin Coolidge High School in New York City. Armed with a freshly minted liberal arts degree and a love of classic literature, she aspires to change the lives of the more than 40 forgotten teenagers who have landed in her English class. When she sobers from her wide-eyed idealism, she realizes that she is traveling up a down staircase against a stream of bureaucracy that sabotages her efforts to connect with the students. In addition, she is surrounded by a group of kids and teachers who have all but given up on themselves and one another and are just biding their time as they move through the system.
Among the students, Joe Ferone is the classic hard case. He is labeled as a truant, troublemaker and criminal and is the school administration’s go-to scapegoat whenever something goes missing. His academic record does not reflect his exceptional IQ, and he, too, seems to face the same uphill battle that Ms. Barrett fights each day. As a result, Joe becomes a focus of Ms. Barrett’s efforts, perhaps because she recognizes something in him that she sees in herself. The plot of “Up the Down Staircase” follows the lives of Ms. Barrett, Joe and a cast of more than 40 playing the students, administrators and one silent janitor at Calvin Coolidge High School.
A different approach
Kaufman’s novel took a different approach and so does this show, which is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. The book has very little dialogue or narration. Rather, it tells the story through administrative memos, letters to colleagues, student essays and reflections that have been deposited in anonymous suggestion boxes in the school. Set in Ms. Barrett’s classroom, the VMS production is cerebral and concept-driven.
Though there is a significant amount of dialogue in the show, like the book, much of the character development and narration takes the form of spotlight moments where characters share an internal monologue or something they have written. Some of the show even takes place off the stage, with cast members moving into the house.
While it’s based on a commercially-available script, Vail Mountain School theater director Greg Jones adapted the show to take advantage of the talents of the students and to create a teaching tool.
“I wanted the show to feel as if it could have taken place entirely in Ms. Barrett’s head,” Jones said.
VMS theater majors
The production includes more than 40 VMS high school students and is one of two upper-school productions this year. “Rock of Ages” takes the stage in April. Vail Mountain School theater majors met several times each week to rehearse during class. While most of the roles are on stage, the theater major class also provides opportunities to work off stage, with students serving as the stage manager and theater technician. The group also helped with set decoration, including period-appropriate graffiti.
Students researched the accents and affect of period characters. They studied video from that era to create differences in tone and inflection that distinguish a Bronx accent from that of a Brooklyn or Queens native. They learned movement patterns and vernacular of the 1960s so they could occasionally ad lib throughout the show.
Student also created their own costumes, interpreting the motivations of their characters and expressing them through dress, makeup and hairstyle. Some chose Birkenstocks, others put on go-go boots.
“The goal is to have the students find common elements between themselves and their characters that they can tap into and channel,” Jones said. “Acting is reacting, and in order to do that, one has to draw from something authentic. This is the difference between acting and just pretending.”