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Spring Valley Student Draws Curtain Back on Troupe's Travails, Triumphs

The cast of "Aida" rehearses at Spring Valley High School last spring.
The cast of "Aida" rehearses at Spring Valley High School last spring. Photo Credit: May Neils
The cast of "Aida" performs at Spring Valley High School in the East Ramapo School District last spring.
The cast of "Aida" performs at Spring Valley High School in the East Ramapo School District last spring. Photo Credit: May Neils
The whole crew and cast of "Aida" get together on stage at Spring Valley High School.
The whole crew and cast of "Aida" get together on stage at Spring Valley High School. Photo Credit: May Neils
A member of Thespian Troupe 721 plays the lead in a Spring Valley HIgh School production of "Aida."
A member of Thespian Troupe 721 plays the lead in a Spring Valley HIgh School production of "Aida." Photo Credit: May Neils
Cast members from "Aida" at the theater troupe's wrap party.
Cast members from "Aida" at the theater troupe's wrap party. Photo Credit: May Neils

RAMAPO, N.Y. -- It’s just a little documentary, shot on an iPhone and only 13 minutes long, but its maker, Spring Valley student Melissa Denizard, hopes it will have a big impact on the way folks support the arts.

Denizard, 17, a member of Thespian Troupe 721, an honor society for theater students, had a principal role in its performance of “Aida” last spring.

Based on the Giuseppe Verdi opera of the same name, "Aida" has music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice.

Having been in the program since she was a freshman, Denizard says she knew shows like that may be magical, but "they don’t happen by magic."

While the East Ramapo School District pays the troupe’s professional staff a stipend, everything else is up to the students, says director/choreographer Stacey Tirro.

They have to raise all the funds for production costs, which range from lighting and sets, to costumes, programs and refreshments. Just buying the royalties and the “book” for each play can cost up to $4,000, says the high school dance teacher.

The kids themselves raise money with events like bake sales and coin drops. Volunteers pitch in by making costumes, sets and props.

Things are stable now, but things were at "the lowest of low" a few years back, Tirro says. The district was struggling financially and extracurricular programs landed on the chopping block.

Tirro talks in the documentary about how the troupe was about to put on a play – had even cast the actors and held its first rehearsal – when it got word it was cut.

The pushback, especially from alumni, was so great, that the district somehow found a way to scrape the money together, Tirro says.

Denizard, with the troupe since her freshman year, always regretted not telling the story of their struggles.

Last year, she says, she had a feeling that its production of “Aida” was going to be “something big” and she decided it was time to pull back the curtain and show the troupe’s “dedication, resiliency and creativity.”

Denizard made a video, interviewing Tirro and several cast members, and showing backstage scenes at "Aida." One of them, Enoch Jones, talks about being afraid while in the eighth-grade of losing the music program.

Denizard recalls tearing up after troupe members sang to the board of education last spring.

“I was really taken aback,” she says, “by the level of talent, because we don’t have much, the supplies we need, the money we need, but we give 110 percent.”

Echoing Denizard, Jones says the students “don’t take no for an answer."

With the proper support, he concludes, “nothing can stand in our way. We have a great village.”

Cast member Amani Bent says the quality of their performances shows that “no matter what we go, what you give us, we’re going to use it to the best of our abilities.”

That kind of perseverance reflects, Bent says, “how grateful we are.”

Denizard says standing up for the arts is not only important, it's vital.

"If the community doesn't move and keep telling its story, things get pushed under the rug," she says.

To see Denizard’s film, click here.

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