It was a youth theater group like none other, with hundreds of New Paltz and area children having to learn to dance, sing, write their own scripts, juggle, perform on New York City streets and go through rigorous rehearsal schedules, not-so-rigorous but challenging relaxation and visualization exercises, improv shows and work with and act along with local professionals of all ages — all the while having to keep their grades up, their commitment to sports and family. This was the Arts Community Youth Theater (ACYT), directed by Steve and Carole Ford from its humble origins in 1976 to its ever-increasing popularity and versatility of performances climaxing in 1992.
Now, through the work of Carole Ford — a professor and author, as well as a theater instructor and director — the body of plays, Playbills, newspaper articles, photographs and scripts has been compiled into an archive at the Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library, preserving more than just documents, but a jewel of creative theatrical performances that involved hundreds of teenagers, community actors, dancers and professionals over three decades.
The foundation for the Youth Theater was established over a number of years, during which the Fords offered acting classes, workshops and productions involving teenagers in New Paltz and the surrounding community, beginning at the laboratory Campus School then in operation at SUNY-New Paltz. It was there (its formal name was the Van den Berg Learning Center) that the Fords began an educational pilot program in which theater was used as a focal and final culminating project for the school’s upper grades, six through eight: the Children’s Theater Workshop. Participation in their program required commitment and discipline of its young actors, as the Fords focused on developing their performance skills, all the while providing classes and performances that allowed them the opportunity for self-expression and self-discovery in a safe environment where issues that face teenagers could be openly discussed, helping to create tools for dealing with stress and alienation that can often plague those coming of age.
Annual Campus School productions were designed so that students could be involved in all aspects of theater: writing, music, costume design and construction, set design and construction, house and backstage crews. Their participation provided them with an important appreciation and respect for both the aesthetic and the technical aspects of theater. The Theater Arts Department at SUNY-New Paltz, not only made McKenna Theatre available for performances, but also arranged for technical support.
The “Campus School Shows,” as they came to be known, became important educational and socializing events, still keenly remembered by both participants and audiences after more than 35 years. Years later, in an article in the local newspaper, the Huguenot Herald, (“Displaying their talents,” June 9, 1983, page 12), a critic recalled that the directors had “staged professional children’s theater” at the Campus School “that attracted huge audiences. Many in those audiences were parents, it is true, but many were just theater fans who appreciated good theater.”
In May 1976, the first of the Campus School Shows was presented at McKenna Theatre: an original play based on familiar stories — Robin Hood, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and Cinderella — but that is where the similarity ended. The title of the show was Ribbit, Ribbit, Ribbit (since it was narrated by Kermit the Frog), and it was subtitled How I Was Teargassed in Nottingham, Shoed in Cinderella, Detested, Arrested and Almost Digested. Ribbit was followed by Another Openin’, Another Show in 1977, SRO (Standing Room Only) in 1978 and Mything Persons in 1979.
One of the parents, Don Wildy, recently recalled his reaction when his son Mark told him that he had to attend one of the Campus School’s annual productions. Of course he would, Wildy remembered, but with dread at having to sit through the show. How surprised he was, he told the Fords, when it turned out to be not just good theater, but some of the best and funniest that he’d seen in years!
Following the closing of the Campus School, Steve and Carole continued to work with interested youngsters from the local middle and high schools, providing instruction and an opportunity for them to perform on a limited scale. They studied scenes and monologues, performed for students within classrooms and sometimes performed at other schools. One of Steve’s most successful efforts was a presentation of scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, chosen because it has roles for teenaged performers. Steve Ford performed alongside the actors in the role of John Proctor.
Then, in May 1982 as the Hudson Valley Youth Theater, they performed Scenes and Monologues for an invited audience at McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus. Some of the scenes had been originally prepared by the actors for auditions for the Summer School of Theater in Saratoga. Lisa Panman and Tyagi Schwartz were two of 32 students selected for the program the previous year. Subsequently, Kristen Masson attended as well.
The directors continued to offer classes in improvisational and acting skills and, in the spring of 1983, the company of young performers mounted its first full-scale production at the Academy Theater in New Paltz. It was an ensemble performance piece titled A Few from Feiffer: monologues and scenes based upon the work of the cartoonist. The production was jointly sponsored by Rodney Douglass’ New Day Repertory Company and the Arts Community, an umbrella organization that supported fine and performing arts in the New Paltz area.
The next year, with the help of Eileen Channer, assistant to the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts, and with the support of the Arts Community, the Youth Theater found its home and its permanent name. The first original dramatic piece created by the Arts Community Youth Theater was titled Children of War. It was based upon Bertolt Brecht’s “The Children’s Crusade,” a long narrative poem about the experiences of a band of Polish children who were orphaned at the beginning of World War II. While the poem provided the theme, an original theater piece was developed through improvisation. Sections of the poem were read by the actors, to link the scenes and provide narrative continuity.
“In comparison with other acting or school-production companies for young people, the Youth Theater was considered distinctive because of its innovative use of material that was not written for staged performances, such as poetry,” said Carole Ford. “But through improvisation, almost any written material or story — even news reports and everyday events — became the basis for performance material. A compelling reason for developing original performance material was the dearth of roles, in traditional theater, for teenaged performers. There was a very limited number of plays with characters and text to which teenagers could relate, that they could understand and in which they could be believable to their audiences — that is, roles written for teens, not for adult actors. In addition, we were committed to having the actors work as an ensemble. There were no starring roles; every performer had an equal opportunity to display his or her talents.”
From 1984 to 1992, the Youth Theater continued to make creative theater experiences possible for its company of young actors — ever-changing, as the performers found competing interests or graduated from high school — and for the community. The Theatre Arts Department at SUNY-New Paltz, with Frank Kraat as its chair, continued to provide rehearsal space and access to its theaters. Channer found work/study students or apprentices who were interested in working with the Youth Theater as technical assistants. In fact, one of the Youth Theater’s “techies,” Steve LaMarca, is now the general manger of the Bardavon and Ulster Performing Arts Center theaters.
Leading professionals in the community offered their help. Raymond Kurdt provided sketches and suggestions for set design; Dan Swartz and David George helped oversee lighting and sound design. Theatre Arts professors Frank Kraat, Joe Paparone and Beverly Brumm offered their support as well. Amy LeFevre designed posters and programs, and sometimes created or decorated the sets. Aletta Vett offered her expertise in costume design and construction. Bonnie MacLeod, who had been associated with the Fords since the Campus School shows, was the Youth Theater’s primary choreographer, But Livia Vanaver (of the Vanaver Caravan), Maxine Bacon, Susan Slotnick and Diana Banks also choreographed on occasion.
When the plays included adult characters, rather than have students perform as adults, noted local actors such as Chet London, Donald Wildy, Virginia Ferri, Pamela Geuss and Bruce Pileggi temporarily joined the company. Occasionally a Youth Theater “graduate” such as Kristen Masson and Hannah Fox assisted the directors.
The Youth Theater’s 1992 production Finding Myself was its last, as the Fords had been directing, teaching acting classes and holding down two very intense teaching jobs for more than 20 years. They’ve remained close with many of their then-young actors, and have a family full of now-grown alumni and their alumni’s children whom they adore. Those who had the privilege of performing under their direction have memories and skills that have lasted long after the curtain closed.
One of these is Hannah Fox, who ended up becoming a professor of Dance and Theater and has her own widely popular theater company. “I always felt like we were up to something important — whatever play it was that we were rehearsing for,” she said, “and as a youngster it was exciting to be performing at the college and working with college students and professionals, like Diana Banks and Bonnie MacLeod. But one of the strongest aspects of belonging to the ACYT was the sense that you belonged to a family. The ties and friendships I made in the Youth Theater have been some of the most special and long-lasting. Theater truly builds community. Adolescence is a very strange time, and it is easy to feel confused and even bad about yourself. The Youth Theater became an important outlet and ‘home’ for myself, and I think for others.”
Another ACYT student and performer, Rowan Waugh, said that his strongest memory from his Youth Theater days was when he “threw up before going onstage.” That was only topped by a time when he accidentally went onstage for a skit that he wasn’t in. “Steve and Carole had always taught us that if this ever happened, to pretend like we belonged in the scene. So everyone thought I was the dead soldier the actors were talking about!” What made his participation even more special was “Steve and Carole’s total professionalism and forceful, charismatic personalities. I absolutely loved them both!”
Sam Gibson, an ACYT alumnus who now lives in Rochester, concurred with Fox about what made this particular group so special and what she was able to carry with her through life. “I learned so much about working with others and the value of support from my friends and co-actors — the sense of camaraderie that comes from collaboration with people from all walks of life: the freaks and the geeks, the jocks and the popular kids. Didn’t matter where we came from in school, but we all wanted to make a good show. We learned from each other. I have kept that value of working with a diverse group my whole life. It was helpful for me as an actor to learn improvisation from an early age, and that I could create something out of nothing. It has given me a lot of confidence in myself, and that carries into everything I do. We wrote our own plays; we knew they were special and unique; and having them received with such laughter or tears and intensity by large, diverse audiences was so rewarding.”
While many ACYT alumni took with them great memories, strengthened confidence, the ability to speak publicly or improvise or dance or write creatively, there are some who went on to make this their career. Among those are Glen Heroy, a Campus School alumnus who is now a professional clown with the Big Apple Circus and who was prominently featured in a PBS documentary about the Circus. Jenny Avery, also a Campus School alumna, is now the artistic director of the Next Theater in Evanston, Illinois. Leah Stein, an ACYT alumna, now leads her own dance company in Philadelphia. Lisa Channer and Hannah Fox are both Theater Arts professors.
Keith Cotton, who played Apollo in Mything Persons, has become a notable Broadway music director. Among his shows were Hairspray and The Lion King. (His brother, Will Cotton, who performed in several Campus School shows, has become a well-known artist.) Tyagi Schwartz is a professional actor who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, most recently starring in the TV production of The Good Wife. And the list goes on, from those who have created sign-language theater, like Gibson, to Tyagi’s younger brother Anu, who has a successful set design and construction business in New York City.
These are just some of the memories collected from a body of work that truly took a community to put together, and the leadership of two talented, passionate, youth-loving directors, Steve and Carole Ford, who have left indelible marks on everyone who has and is blessed enough to have been taught and mentored and loved by them. ++