The drama department is changing.
As the buzz of the fall play slowly fades and preparation for the spring musical takes its place, American High School Performing Arts (AHSPA) is going through its annual transition between shows. But this year, that transition is only one of many the program is facing. With all the demands of the pandemic and with Mr. River talking of retirement, the program has some major changes in store.
Ashna Khemani (12), who made her AHSPA debut as Tommy of No Consequence in the program’s production of Marian, Or The True Tale of Robin Hood her freshman year, is one of the few students who has seen the program through its major obstacle these past few years: the Covid-19 pandemic. “I went from being the youngest person on stage to one of the oldest, so I had to really focus on setting a good example. What was especially weird is that when I was in freshman year, everyone had already done at least four or five shows with Mr. River before. And this time, the only experience that anyone had was me and Nathan, who had each done only one show each before. So it was weird. We had to think back to freshman year [and] sophomore year [to remember] what the traditional warm ups [were] that we did, and everything. So it was different because I didn’t really have a strong, older, more experienced figure to look to because I was one of those this time,” she explains.
Beyond that, the masks have definitely required major adjustments from everyone involved. Keerti Verada, a senior who worked alongside Mr. River to create the costumes for Pride and Prejudice, hand-sewed masks for each cast member to match their costumes. But even then, the actors have had to adapt. “We have to adjust everything to work with masks. Because it’s so hard to show anything, even in daily life, behind this thing. But I mean, it’s Covid [so] you can’t really do anything about it.” Khemani says resignedly.
But even as the pandemic seems to finally be nearing its end and as the theater program begins to get used to the adjustments they’ve had to make, another major change lies on the horizon. Mr. River, who has run the drama department for the past 18 years, has been thinking about retiring. And though nothing’s official, there has been talk about Ms. Benedetti, a current APENG teacher, taking over that role. “In coming here as a new teacher, I have been working with [Mr. River] and shadowing him. He is leaving. He is talking about retiring, so it would absolutely be phenomenal if I could take over after him. But that being said, there’s nothing set in stone,” says Ms. Benedetti.
“He does so much for the shows it’s just always blown my mind. When I was at Irvington, or even in college, everything [was] delegated to people. The sets get built by particular people, the costumes get done by particular people, there’s a director to deal with the directing of the show, [and] lighting is normally someone else. But here Mr. River does everything. And when I came along and saw this, it just just blew my mind that one person could do so much and put in so much to the shows and come out with an amazing product that always looks spectacular,” Ms. Benedetti continues.
Tanvi Bhide (9), who starred as Lydia Bennet and Lady Catherine DeBourgh in the fall production of Pride and Prejudice, also had positive things to say about working with Mr. River. “I like how when someone does something good, he does not fail to praise. When something needs work on, he will not give up until you get that right. I remember there was this one line in the fall play which Aditya could not get right. He just could not say that one line. I forgot the line actually, but he could not say it. And we kept working on it. And on the very last show, he got it perfect. Like, perfect. So Mr. River didn’t give up. That’s something that I think Mr. River is really good at.”
With all Mr. River has done for the program and for all the students that have come through it, the change to a new director will definitely be bittersweet. “I’m really sad to see Mr. River go, of course, but I’m excited to be part of his last two productions. I’m happy that I’ve got this opportunity to be with him for the last few years before he departs,” Bhide says.
Though there is sadness around Mr. River’s departure, there is also [a lot] of excitement around the idea of Ms. Benedetti taking over. Bhide and Khemani both had positive experiences with her when she worked as an acting coach on Pride and Prejudice. “With River and Benedetti, it was very much a good cop, bad cop dynamic. I think you’d probably tell who is who. But it was really interesting because she gave everyone so much one-on-one help. And even for me, I thought I was decent, but she still gave me a lot of feedback. And I just felt myself improve every time I talked to her. So that was really interesting. Just how much focus she gave everyone in the cast,” Khemani explains.
Bhide added on to that, highlighting Ms. Benedetti’s detail-oriented nature. “She gives more advice on things. So the tinier things that she notices is something that she voices on. Mr River, usually if something changes one time, like if I say one line wrong one time, he won’t point it out because it’s a one time thing. But Ms. Benedetti [would] definitely point it out.”
Ms. Benedetti, who is clearly passionate about theater, wants to carry on Mr. River’s legacy while implementing some of the things that made her own high school theater experience a memorable one. “When I was in high school, we were part of the International Thespian Society. It was more of a side thing that we were able to do, but it gave students an extra thing to put on college resumes if they wanted to be part of that society.… The other thing I loved when I was in high school was being able to go to competitions. They are a bit subjective, so it’s hit or miss [regarding] whether you take home the gold or whatever, but that process of being able to see other schools, meet other people, [and] see other productions that other schools are putting on [was valuable] … So not only being able to bring something that you were really proud of working on and show it to other people, but also being able to see others do the same thing. That would be something that I would like to be able to see more in the future too.. just building up the theater community as much as we could. I mean, it’s hard, of course, with COVID right now and as much as we are able to with what we have in terms of funding for the school or our ability to do that. It’s just something that would be really cool.”
Khemani will graduate before any of these changes come to fruition, but she can still see how much of an impact they will have. “I think it’ll definitely be a big change for the students who are going to continue, like current freshmen and sophomores and everyone. Changing to someone new will definitely be big for them,” she explains.
As we look toward the spring production of Freaky Friday and even further to the future years of AHSPA, Ms. Benedetti urges students to give theater a chance. “If you haven’t checked it out, I would just say to check it out, and it will be worth it. I didn’t hear any bad things about any of the shows, and there’s nothing I would have changed about it. So if people get the opportunity to check it out, whether it’s being interested in the classes, coming to see the shows, or just asking somebody about it, it’s definitely worth it. It’ll change your life.”
According to Tanvi Bhide (9), the theater community is “like my second family now. Every show that we do, our family grows. And it’s great to see how much we’ve progressed.” Here, the cast of Freaky Friday is building that sense of community as they rehearse.