Drama program expects changes after director of 20 years leaves

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Drama program expects changes after director of 20 years leaves

Ellida Parker

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Dozens of students will file into Wilson’s black box theater this Tuesday afternoon to audition for the fall musical, the largest of Wilson’s six annual theater productions. After being divided into groups of ten, they’ll rehearse their audition songs of choice in the hallway until their group is called back into the black box to perform. Then, one by one, each student will walk to the center of the room, introduce themself to the table of directors, and begin to sing.

It’s the same drill every year, and it has been for just over two decades. But there will be one notable difference to the age-old routine this year: Harriet Bronstein, founder and former director of Wilson’s drama program, won’t be there. After more than 20 years of directing shows at Wilson, Bronstein will not be returning to direct for the 2018-19 school year.

Bronstein’s contract to direct Wilson shows was not renewed last June. Filling her place is Wilson parent Karen Harris, a longtime musical theater performer who has taught musical theater in various schools and programs around the DMV since 2008. Harris has also served on a number of DCPS committees, in addition to serving as both the Director of Arts Integration and the Interim Director of Enrichment at Janney Elementary school.

When Bronstein arrived at Wilson in 1995 to direct the Wilson Players, the school did not have a fall musical or spring Shakespeare play. She created the drama program that today’s students are familiar with, and became the school’s first drama teacher in 2005.

In May, Bronstein told Martin that she would not be returning to teach any classes in the 2018-19 school year, but still planned on directing the fall musical and spring Shakespeare play. Martin consented to this, and gave her approval for what was then slated to be the fall musical, Ragtime.  

On the last day of school last year, Martin wrote in an email to Bronstein that Wilson would be, “going in a new direction,” with the theater department, and that they were planning on working with a new director in the 2018-19 school year. Bronstein did not receive any additional explanation.

Martin explained the decision to hire a new director by referencing a general shift in the school’s approach to all their programs. “We’ve had just a number of programs where we’re just trying to improve rigor, engagement, involvement, and just keep things fresh and change things. So that is the reason why Ms. Harris is now in charge of the musical,” she said.

“Clearly, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to continue working in the program I had created,” said Bronstein.

In a video compilation shown at Bronstein’s goodbye party last summer, countless students credited her with sparking their interest in drama, making theater the highlight of their high school experience, and fundamentally changing their lives. “Without you, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” said one student in the video, addressing Bronstein. “I wouldn’t have even thought about going to college. I was going to go into the military, but you were like, ‘hey, you should consider being a theater major.’ And I did,” he said

Bronstein’s leadership of Wilson’s theater department, however, also received criticism in recent years from students who perceived trends of type-casting. Last year, one student dropped out of the musical after being cast in the role of an Middle Eastern character, a role he felt he had been given because of his skin tone. “I know I look a certain way, but that shouldn’t have affected casting decisions,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous.

Harris applied for the position after hearing of Bronstein’s departure, and signed on to direct several weeks before the start of the school year. Despite previous talk of putting on Ragtime, the show Bronstein had chosen, Harris opted to buy the rights to the show Rent for the fall musical. Unlike Ragtime, which revolves around three distinct ethnic groups, the production of Rent will not involve casting along ethnic or racial lines.

“There are shows whose plot depends on diversity, like Ragtime, where race is an integral part of the plot,” said Harris. “Those are great shows to do in a diverse setting, but then you have to cast based on race, because there are certain characters that are written as a particular race. And then there are shows that are accessible to a diverse cast because the play is just about people, and any person can play any role.”

Rent, a rock musical depicting the lives of struggling artists living in New York City during the 1980s AIDs epidemic, seemed to Harris to fit that description.  

“I was looking for a play where diversity would add to the show, where any student could come in and feel like, ‘I am auditioning for a show and any part is open to me.’ Rent fills that role very nicely,” said Harris.

Martin viewed the shift to Rent as a step in the right direction. “I think that the fact we’re doing Rent is telling. I’ve wanted to do modern shows, shows that address complicated topics in exciting and fresh ways,” said Martin.

Martin did not specify precisely why she felt that Bronstein was no longer a good fit for Wilson, but said, “It’s always remained that I’ve been looking forward to a different approach to our theater department.”