When Sean Paris first joined the faculty of Blake High School in 1997, the school’s magnet program for the arts had only just begun. Paris was to be the program’s first theater director.
He worked there for four years before moving back to New York to “do his own thing.” When he returned to the Tampa Bay area, and to Blake High School, 15 years later, things had changed.
Paris was seeing many of his former students on professional stages.
“We’ve had several students that have been on freeFall stages, three on American Stage stages, two or three on Stageworks stages,” says Paris, “so in my opinion, Blake High’s theater program is the breeding ground for Tampa’s talent.”
Spencer Meyers, who will be returning to his role as Hedwig in Jobsite’s 2018 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was one of those students. Others include Hannah Anton, whom you might remember from Tampa Repertory Theatre’s 2018 production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge; Chris Rutherford, who played the starring role in freeFall’s 2012 production of Keith Haring: Radiant Child; and Travis Brown, who acted in Stageworks’ 2014 production of Superior Doughnuts. Paris listed about 10 more names for me, and he tells me this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Blake alumni have been “on almost every professional stage in Tampa that I can think of,” says Paris.
Some have even made it on Broadway. Here Paris gives Derek Hanson, Dan’yelle Williamson, Hayden Milanes and Taylor Trensch as examples. Williamson was in the national Lion King tour as Nala. Hayden Milanes played Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys.
“We do have a record of kids succeeding, but I don’t want people to think that that’s the measure of our success,” because it’s not, says Paris. Blake’s theater department measures their success in terms of how many of their students become lifelong lovers of theater and the arts, regardless of whether they choose it as a career path or not.
When Blake High School’s Magnet Program for the Arts was faced with budget cuts and lost one of their directors, Paris knew he had to do something. It’s important to him that his students be exposed to more than just one style of directing. So he reached out to his childhood friend, Stageworks’ Karla Hartley, for help. That year, Hartley directed her first BHS production.
The following year, Hartley was at a meeting of the National New Play Network in Orlando, when the perfect play for this year’s BHS collaboration fell into her lap. Every year, the National New Play Network introduces a series of new plays to member theaters, with the goal of finding professional theater companies willing to produce them. This was where Hartley saw a screen reading of David Jacobin’s Ready Steady Yeti Go.
Ready Steady Yeti Go follows five middle school students as they react to a minor racial incident in their town. The coming-of-age tale is one part drama, one part comedy, and one part love story, inspired by Jacobin’s youth.
“I grew up on Long Island, which is a little, very racist, pocket of New York,” says Jacobin. “I grew up being bounced around in different, mostly white suburbs. I realized that I thought of my family as a multi-racial extended family. But outside of that, the way we talked about race, or the way adults, like educators or even parents sometimes, talked to us about race, I always felt like I was under-educated and unprepared. I think that’s a problem. So I was thinking about my youth and how many bad lessons I received, and I wrote a play about it.”
Given the school setting, Ready Steady Yeti Go is ideal for a professional theater/high school theater collaboration.
“It felt like a perfect storm,” says Hartley. “I could make use of the talents of the young people at Blake, who are 16, 17, 18, to play these younger characters, and give them all an opportunity to have their first professional experience. It felt like the perfect fit.”
Thirty-eight BHS students auditioned for the five roles in Stageworks’ production of Ready Steady Yeti Go. Not everyone will get a role, but at least they will all get the experience of auditioning for people in professional theater. Those chosen will be the best of the best.
“I want Tampa to see us as a viable entertainment option,” says Paris, “We are, what we consider, a pre-professional training program. So if they come to see us, they are not only going to see artists who will be on the professional stages of Tampa Bay, but they’re going to see them now, while they’re training. And some of them are even on stages when they’re in school, so they’re actually seeing professionals at work.”