Episode 140: These Kids Are Worth It
Stacey Tirro works in a district with a negative reputation. There are threats of budget cuts all around her. People ask her all the time “do you feel safe teaching there?” (She’s never felt safer by the way) And none of this stopped her from doing one of musical theatre’s most difficult shows – West Side Story. Stacey thinks her kids are worth it. Listen in to hear her story.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Welcome to Episode 140!
You can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode140.
And we’ve got another podcast that makes you think – makes me think – about the question: “What motivates you for your students?” We’ve got Stacy Tirro who works in a district with a very, very negative reputation. There are constant threats of budget cuts around here. People ask her all the time, “Do you feel safe teaching there?” and, for the record, she’s never felt safer so let’s put that out there. None of this basically swirling negativity that is all around her stops her for not only doing her job but doesn’t stop her from being motivated to put on one of musical theatre’s most difficult shows with her students – West Side Story.
Stacy is highly motivated – not only to do the best for her students but she’s motivated to expect the best from her students.
Enough of my blah blah blah-ing. Let’s hear from Stacy.
LINDSAY: I am very excited to be talking right now to Stacy Tirro. Hello, Stacy!
STACY: Hello! How are you?
LINDSAY: I am… I’m excellent. How are you?
STACY: I’m doing great!
LINDSAY: Good! Good, good, good, good! Stacy and I are talking, earlier in the year, I put out a sort of call for success stories and challenges and we put those out about a month ago. But Stacy’s story was so… it was big. I’m sure it felt very big to you, didn’t it? And I wanted to talk to her – to you – in more depth and for a lot of reasons. I think that, so often, when we hear about an area that is dealing with political strife and dealing particularly with arts cut-backs, it can be a story of despair and I just think how wonderful it is to kind of have an uplifting story that kind of comes out of that. I think you see your story as uplifting.
STACY: I do. I do because of the people that are involved – my students who are one of a kind in terms of their individuality and in terms of them as a group of people who come together to make theatre happen. They’re some of the most incredible people that I’ve ever met and I say that collectively. I’ve been doing this since 1996 with this particular group who was established before I even got there and I was fortunate enough to be able to continue it on as I went through the years. This year in particular was really, really magical. I feel like we’re kind of like the little engine that could – you know, constantly going uphill, constantly dealing with problems that don’t have anything directly to do with us – but because of the stuff that goes on above and around us, it potentially does impact us and budget cuts were the first sort of scary thing that happened.
I guess the backstory is International Thespian Troupe 721 were a charter member of the International Thespian Society.
LINDSAY: And I think it’s important to note that this is like a long-time troupe. It was established in 1946?
STACY: Correct, and I think it was May of 1946. And so, I mean, before I was born – long before I was born.
LINDSAY: That was before my mom was born, you know.
STACY: I know! So, this is sixty, seventy years that this troupe has been in existence and it has been passed along from one educator to the next over the years. Iris Fialkoff who was my predecessor who still helps us, she kind of is our eyes – you know, she kind of looks over us and comes to rehearsals once in a while and makes sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do – but she retired in 1994 and basically handed the troupe to me. I think she was grooming me for that purpose and I was like, “Are you sure about this?” and she was like, “Yes, I’m sure.”
So, I have been at the helm of thespians since 1994 and I direct and I choreograph the show and I run a dance program in the high school during the school day where the kids get gym credit for it but it’s like their full modern and ballet and multicultural dance. We’re very fortunate that, at least in our building, the arts are supported and I feel supported. We’ve been doing two shows a year. We do our fall play and our spring musical. We participate in this kind of like a regional Tony award kind of thing called the Metropolitan High School Theatre Awards that encompasses three or four different counties in the area so it’s gotten bigger and bigger. Every year, we get nominations; sometimes, we get wins.
You know, we’re recognized in the greater community outside of our school and outside of our district as having really high-quality productions and we’re proud of that. You know, I guess – well, not because of that but I think – it kind of helps that we’re doing this kind of work that’s getting recognized to sort of remind our outside community that this is valuable and that this is important – not just to us but to the community – you know, to be able to say and boast, you know, “Look at this wonderful theatre program that’s being run. They’re getting awards and they’re getting nominations and they’re doing Broadway calibre looking work,” and on and on.
We’re one of two high schools. The sister high school, Ramapo High School, does similar quality work as we do. You know, we have the infrastructure there in place to maintain this forward motion of excellence in theatre and arts in general. But, unfortunately, we’ve had about a five, six, seven-year span our school budgets were voted down and there were political reasons for that – again, having nothing to do with us individually because, you know, cuts are across the board. It’s not just the theatre troupe or the arts but arts unfortunately gets pummeled, you know, when it comes to that. There was one year – I’d say, about four or five years ago – where our fall show was actually cut. In fact, we found out, like, the day after auditions and the cast list went up and I had my first meeting with the kids and then I got the word that the fall show was cut. I was like, “Are you kidding me? We just cast the show. The kids are ready for their first rehearsal.” You know, we had our first and what we thought would be our last meeting and then I said, “Look, if this is important to you, you need to let them know that this is important to you.” You know, there was emails from our kids, from alumni, from people who believe that the program matters and there were a lot of those people. You know, there was some money that was allocated from the state – like, bullet funding, discretionary funds – that they decided to put towards our program which was needed in order to make it run. And so, you know, we kind of dodged that bullet so to speak and we went on with the show and it was great. And so, since then, you know, we’ve been okay but it’s only because New York State has allocated some of these discretionary funds, this bullet funding, to make sure that these extracurricular programs are able to run. Part of the stuff that was cut was all the non-mandated stuff. As budgets get tighter and the demand for mandated things grows, it’s the extracurriculars that suffer for that. And so, that’s kind of where we are right now.
LINDSAY: I think what’s most interesting, and I think that even for some further background, your school district was actually profiled on This American Life. From the article, when they use words like “rough” and “disadvantaged,” that paints a picture, doesn’t it?
STACY: It does. You know, it’s funny because people ask me all the time, “Oh, my god, you work at Spring Valley High School.”
STACY: And the demographics of Spring Valley High School, it’s a majority of Black and Latino, and there’s a very huge diverse population that is non-white. So, our population of white students are very, very small. People on the outside, like, “Oh, my god, you work at Spring Valley High School. Do you feel safe?”
LINDSAY: Well, that leads to a bigger question. It’s like, “Why would you have that reaction? Just because of the demographic of the high school?”
LINDSAY: You know what I mean?
LINDSAY: Like, huh?
STACY: Right. And I downplay it.
STACY: I’ve never felt safer. I’ve never felt more fulfilled we’ll call it – satisfied – with a position, with a job, and I was in professional theatre for a couple of years and I never really felt happy and satisfied. I got this position, I was like, “Oh, my god, yes! This is exactly what I have to do! This is exactly where I have to be!” And so, every single year, I finish the school year and I’m exhausted and I’m tired and I need a break, but I always want to come back in September because there is so much that we do. There is so much project and so much creativity and building that we get to do here and these kids of all kids need it. They thrive on it. They seek it out. It’s like this two-way street of “Oh, my god, you inspire me! Oh, my god, I couldn’t do this without you!” It’s back and forth. So, when people look at me with a side eye, I’m like, “Okay, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not doing what I’m doing so don’t ask me anymore questions.”
LINDSAY: Well, clearly, if someone’s going to make a comment like that, they don’t have any idea.
STACY: No, they don’t, they clearly don’t. I’m like, “If you came and you saw what we do, you would change your mind completely.”
LINDSAY: On that note, the thing that I think is even better, in this time of strife, you decided to take on a massive musical theatre project.
LINDSAY: First of all, you can’t see me but I’m applauding. I think that’s awesome. I think, how amazing to, in a time of strife, not go, “Okay, we’re going to downplay things a little.” No, no.
STACY: Turn it up!
LINDSAY: Turn it up. You did West Side Story.
LINDSAY: Let’s get into that.
LINDSAY: First off, what level of ability are these students? Are they just typical – your plain old typical high school level? How much do they get in terms of a musical theatre grounding?
STACY: Education, okay. Most of them, none. You have your occasional kid who takes dance class at the local dance studio. I can think of maybe one or two off the top of my head who actually take voice lessons – who even know that voice lessons is a thing. these are kids, many of them whose parents are immigrants – either first-generation or second-generation immigrants – so their mindset is, you know, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to do well in school. Sometimes, they have one job, two jobs, three jobs – depending on where they are. You know, they aren’t from the suburban background that I had where I got voice lessons, I got dance lessons, I got acting lessons if I wanted it. I got flute lessons and piano lessons. Like, lessons, lessons, lessons. I got all of this extracurricular because my parents paid for it. These parents, many of them don’t have the means to do that. So, they are coming to me with (a) natural talent, (b) a will, a desire to learn. I run a dance program in the school, like I said earlier, and so whatever they get from that, if they even take my class, and you know, I have a musical director, Andy Perez, who’s just phenomenal and in a very short amount of time, he tries to train them to be singers, how to be a singer and what you need to do in order to make that happen. They have training from me from dance and from an acting perspective. I could teach the theatre classes but that’s relegated to the English department so I don’t get to do that. It’s really, like, get as much skill training in them as possible in three months’ time.
STACY: It’s challenging, needless to say. My Jets, my guys on the Jets this year, about half of them were on the tennis team and so we were sort of battling for schedules in the second half of the rehearsal schedule. To get them to do a saut de basque and point their toes and squeeze their ties together and get their arms in the right position, it took literally three months to get even close to that, you know. And so, it is frustrating that I wish they could have more training coming to me. But, at the same time, the training that they have, I had given them. You know, it’s kind of like, well, if they’re going to get it from anybody, if they’re going to get it from me, I guess that’s a good thing. It makes my job more challenging, obviously, and I’ve got to put more energy out to make that happen but they’re worth it.
STACY: And they want it.
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s awesome.
STACY: Yeah. So, that’s that; that’s the training aspect.
LINDSAY: Okay. And then, what’s the spark in them that they actually want to take on musical theatre? Is it just because you’re an awesome teacher and they want to stay? I’m not kidding! Particularly guys – how did you get a whole Jet crew and a whole Shark crew?
STACY: Right. Okay. Well, normally, I don’t have this many guys – what high school does? The backstory is that, last year, we took on In the Heights and most of the guys who were seniors this year were juniors last year. While I did have a lot of talented girls graduate, I retained a lot of the guys who have been training under me, and I thought really hard because, for years, people were like, “When are you doing West Side Story?” I was like, “Never; I’m never doing West Side Story. It’s not going to happen.”
LINDSAY: The guys?
STACY: Yeah! That and Bernstein. I mean, it’s Bernstein! You don’t mess around with that, you know?
LINDSAY: I saw a thing with Leonard Bernstein because it’s such challenging music and it was like opera singers and – oh, the name totally escapes me but – a very young famous opera singer was petrified because he kept screwing up and Bernstein was furious at him! So, I can imagine!
STACY: Yeah! When I even remotely considered it at the end of last year, after In the Heights was done and I sat with my musical director and I was like, “So, what do you think? You think we could do West Side Story?” and he looked at me and he had been wanting to conduct West Side Story his entire career but he’s also a realist – you know, he’s not stupid – and, you know, we kind of thought and we kind of went back and forth with the pros and cons and he’s like, “You know what? If there’s ever a year, this is going to be the year to do it so, yeah, I think we can make it happen. We’re going to have to pay some professionals, you know – like, we don’t have French horn players, we don’t have a trombone – there’s a lot of instrumentation that we don’t have in the students in the high school that are sort of required by West Side Story.”
LINDSAY: Well, if you’re going to use a live orchestra, for sure, yeah.
STACY: Yeah, and, you know, when you have five separate violin parts and two separate French horn parts and each of those parts have important licks in the score, you don’t want to miss anything. And he’s a perfectionist. I was like, “Andy, do we really, really need blah blah blah,” and he’s like, “Yes, we do, if we’re going to do it right.” I’m like, “But we’re a high school! It’s okay if there’s this little…” He’s like, “No, this is the way it has to happen.” I was like, “Ugh, okay, fine,” and so money, money, money. It would go flying out the window.
And I was like, “Well, what about vocalists? Because you can’t hire the student onstage performers, that’s got to come from the school,” and you know, we were thinking of the kids who we had and hoping that they would stay and come back and people would appear out of nowhere. He’s like, “Yeah, I think we can do it. We’re going to have to train them but I think we can do it.” And so, I said, “Okay. Then, that’s it. West Side Story it is because, if it’s not now, it’s never.” I knew that I’d had this huge group of guys who were very dedicated and very fantastic. They’re going to graduate and I knew that I was likely not going to get this kind of group again for who knows how long, plus knowing that art and music in our elementary schools has been cut – because, again, budget cuts and that kind of thing. And so, musicians, as they’re coming up through the years, they’re not going to have the training from the time that they’re young to even entertain a score like Bernstein. I mean, even the kids that we have now were not well enough prepared but, I mean, what high school kid is, to be fair? It was kind of just like throw caution to the wind, let’s just do it, and we’ll make it work.
And so, you know, these kids, I guess one of the smart things that we do is, for the musicals, we always have a daytime feeder school show where some of the classes from the middle school and some of the classes from the sixth grade come in and watch our final dress rehearsal during the school day. And so, that kind of puts the bug in their brain. Like, all of our seniors talk about, “Oh, when we saw The Wiz,” “Oh, when we saw this and that, we really wanted to do this, we really wanted to be on the stage, we were so impressed.”
And so, you know, they kind of get stars in their eyes because of that and then they seek us out. When they get to high school, they find us. It’s like a self-perpetuating cycle – thank god, because we can do that, we’re kind of smart in that way, I guess. I think it’s just more than just “I want to be a star.” I don’t think any of these kids are really looking to become a musical theatre star in high school or in life. I think what they get from our program – and I hear this year after year after year – is that, you know, they always talk about that sense of family, that sense of support, that sense of belongingness, that sense of stepping out of their box, out of their comfort zone doing something extraordinary even though they don’t feel quite ready or prepared to do something extraordinary but doing it anyway because we’re telling them that they can.
LINDSAY: Well, isn’t that all they need sometimes? It’s amazing if you just say, “No, no, you can do this,” and they’re like, “Oh, somebody believes in me. I’ll believe in me.”
STACY: Yeah, and I think that a lot of them – not all of them but a lot of them – hear just the opposite, sadly. You know, I said in that article, and I really feel that it’s true, I feel like there are times when I am undoing years and years and years of – whether it’s family or society, media – saying “you are terrible,” “you’re not good,” “you’re not worthy,” “you’re not worth it.”
I’m like undoing that and I can’t tell them enough, “Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can, just work hard – really, really hard – and focus yourself and, yes, you can.”
LINDSAY: The difference is that, you know, we’re told all the time, it’s like, “Oh, we’re raising this generation of they never hear bad things. they never hear this and hear this.” I think there’s a big difference in saying, “Oh, you’re good, don’t do anything.” “You’re good, but you have to work.” I think that’s what I see a lot of in drama teachers when they’re talking about that you don’t get off. When you have to put something on like West Side Story, if you do not put the work it, then it’s all for naught. It’s the work – that’s the most important part.
STACY: Yeah, and it’s not like I went from rehearsal to saying, “Oh, my god, you guys are so fantastic!”
LINDSAY: No, of course not.
STACY: I told them, “That was terrible. This is why it was terrible. This is what you need to do in order to make it not terrible. Now, do it.” It’s that process that makes the difference.
LINDSAY: Yes. Also, underneath that, it’s that layer of belief. It’s like, “I’m telling you this in this way because I know what’s in you and I believe in you.” I think that’s such a big difference. That’s the layer that, really, I think is desperately needed.
STACY: Yes. I mean, I think that’s what good or great or excellent teachers do – they care enough and they believe enough in the people who don’t believe in themselves because what perspective do they have by themselves to believe in themselves? They need their mentors, their teachers, their parents, their families to say, “Look, this is where you are now, this is where you could be if you just put the work into it,” and that, I think, is the missing link. “It’s not that you suck; it’s that you haven’t worked hard enough to get really good, but you can, if you do the work!”
LINDSAY: Was there ever a point in the middle of the rehearsal, in the dog days of the rehearsal process you just sort of looked around and went, “Oh, this is not happening’’?
STACY: You know what? No.
LINDSAY: Ah! That’s awesome! Okay. Why? Why do you think that is? Why do you think that it all came?
STACY: Because I think that these kids, this particular group, these kids were hungry for this. I had a lot of high-achieving kids in this group and I’m not necessarily just talking about high academic achievers. I mean, kids who just wanted that success. And I had a lot of smart kids in the group who did know what it takes to make something extraordinary happen. Between those kids and your sort of more average kids who really, really just wanted it too, they knew when they were not good and they said, “We need to buckle down and we need to make this happen.” So, there was this undercurrent of “we’re not going to suck even though we suck now.”
And so, it was a huge building-climbing process and every step of the way. I would show them a video of the Broadway, and then I would show them the video of themselves, and I would say, “What do you see here that you don’t see here?” And so, we would talk about it and then I would say, “Okay. So, how hard do you think it is to do that? Just do that thing and put it in your performance.”
Whether it was an energy thing or it was an attitude thing, there’s just so far that your flexibility can go – your physical muscle flexibility can go. There’s a limit to how many turns you can do. “You know, we’re not here to train Broadway performers; we’re here to put a production together that we are really proud of.” And that’s what they did. They spent three and a half months putting everything into that end. And so, as I saw how hard they were working, I mean, there was doubts on how, if I would be able to produce, you know, I’d be able to get the choreography in each rehearsal. But, every single time I would give them choreography or give them their blocking or I’d give them notes, they figured out how to do it and I had every confidence in them that whatever I was able to put their way, they would absorb it and they would make it happen.
Were there messy points? Yeah! This was not nirvana but they made me proud every single day of that process and I actually miss being in those rehearsals with them and yelling at them and saying, “Again!” and “Five, six, seven, eight, go!” I think they miss it, too. I think we all kind of are still getting over that production because it was very, very special.
LINDSAY: What kind of response did you get from your administration, your community, from parents?
STACY: Well, you know, we had pretty much full houses. Like, we had a Thursday night, a Friday night, a Saturday night show. Saturday, I think we have like a 600 or just over a 600-seat house and at least 600 seats were gone. We had three rousing standing ovations so that was pretty good. We don’t always get that.
You know, my administration, they’re always like, “We can’t believe this. We can’t believe what we see. These kids are amazing. What you do with them, blah blah blah.” The parents, they always seem impressed – some of them are amazed. But, you know, I’ve seen other shows in other areas and the general parental support is not as vibrant as I’ve seen. In the school district where I am which is one of the neighboring districts, the parents are everywhere. The parents are at everything and I’m like, “Do you people work? Do you not work? What’s happening here?” But the parents make it their business to support their kids in these ways and I’m not trying to condemn anybody because, you know, if you’re not in a position where you can just take off work and you’re just not in that position, and I do respect that. But I guess the commentary is what impact does it have on the kids and their ability to achieve greater things if the parents are not really, really behind them, and not just saying, “Oh, yeah, you can go ahead and you can do this program,” but more, “You can do it and I am there for you, like, every step of the way.”
You know, I mean, these kids I guess learn a lot of independence which maybe their counterparts with more parental support maybe wouldn’t have as much of maybe. I’m just kind of guessing here but a lot of them are in dire need of adult support – you know, emotional and sometimes physical but I feel like they’re just in more need and it’s not just myself. It’s also my production staff and musical direction and the people in the school who are supporting these kids. We kind of try and play second family to them whenever possible. We often help them through their own difficulties and we try and provide as much as we can. I mean, you know, we have our own families too but to make them feel comfortable and willing to take risks for us, you know, creative risks for us. So, you know, ups and downs!
LINDSAY: As with everything, isn’t it?
STACY: Sure! Sure, of course.
LINDSAY: So, how do you feel now about going into next year? Do you feel on shaky ground about where your program might be? Do you feel a little more solid? Or do you just go, “It doesn’t matter”?
STACY: Yeah, I think, as an educator, you kind of also go through your own learning curve and your own maturity. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I say, “Well, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to do this.” As long as they let me, we’re in. I’m good. When they tell me to stop, then I guess I have to stop – not without a bit of a fight but, you know, if they’re cutting me off, they’re cutting me off and that’s that. It makes me horrified for the kids because this is a program where they thrive. But, so far, I haven’t had to deal with that and I hope and pray that I do not have to deal with that and that the kids do not have to deal with that. I think the district is on better ground financially. There have been some additions put back in. It’s not where it needs to be or where they want it to be but there seems to be a little bit of an upswing. Financially, our budget did pass this year for next year with a minimal increase so we haven’t heard anything to the contrary but, like I said, I’m there for the program if the program is going to be allowed to run.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and I guess what else are going to go do except just always be ready, willing, and able?
LINDSAY: For as long as you can be willing and able.
LINDSAY: Thank you so much, Stacy. I just think it’s such an inspiration to hear an attitude like that.[dog growls]
STACY: Oh, stop it!
LINDSAY: Two seconds, I’m wrapping up! I’m wrapping up! Okay. I’ve got to do that again. Okay. So, thank you so much, Stacy, for talking to me. I really appreciate it and I really find it inspiring and I know that we’ve got lots of folks who are in a similar boat that they are dealing with political strife and also massive cutbacks and I think it’s really an amazing thing to hear somebody’s story and say, “We’re not dialing down. We’re going as far as we can go.”
LINDSAY: Thank you so much!
STACY: You’re so welcome! Thank you, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Stacy!
For any links from this episode, go to theatrefolk.com/episode140.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
Today, we have Typecast. Typecast is written by Amanda Murray Cutalo. We have another one of her plays in our catalogue called Nice Girl.
Typecast is all about, well, being typecast. At the beginning of our play, our teen characters, they kind of like the roles that they’ve been slotted into – at the very least, they accept them. The Quiet Girl accepts being Quiet Girl and always getting the rock. The Nice Girl accepts that the Diva loves being the Diva.
So, what happens when rehearsals start for the school play and everyone’s been miscast – not put in their regular roles? The Nice Girl is now the Villain. The Diva only has – I don’t know – two minutes onstage. Everyone has to awkwardly forge their way into new territory and they’re forced to see themselves as more than a type. I think, if there’s ever a great message for teenagers and the never-ending slots they get put into, it amazes me how cliques still survive. I haven’t been in high school in – uh, what? – thirty years and, still, the cliques that I knew, they still exist.
If there’s ever a message that we can get out there that you are more than a type, I think that this is a great way to sort of explore that thought.
Go to theatrefolk.com and read sample pages for Typecast. You can also find the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode140.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday on theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.