by Clark Groome
Since its founding in 1895, Germantown Academy’s Belfry Club could have performed, at the rate of one per year, all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays three times each with a couple of extra performances of his most popular works and Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” thrown in for good measure. While the group has done some Shakespeare, and “Kiss Me Kate,” among the more than 170 plays produced during its history, The Bard’s work hasn’t been its top priority.
But this fall’s production, which was performed last Friday and Saturday, was Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield’s “The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged).” It give the audience all the Shakespeare plays, including a 43-second “Hamlet,” in about two-and-one-half hours.
GA’s Belfry Club is widely recognized as the oldest continuously operating independent school drama club in the U.S. To verify that claim, former Belfry director Vincent Campbell wrote to every private school founded prior to 1894. “Only Exeter (in New Hampshire),” he reported at the time of the club’s centennial in 1995, “founded its drama club two years before us, but it was disbanded for seven or eight years. We have not missed a season.”
Writing about the Belfry’s history in GA’s magazine, The Patriot, Ken Anderson ’13, the Belfry’s student archivist, reports that the Belfry’s “incredible saga began [in 1894] when a group of Academy boys, led by J. Warner Johnson, 1895, approached alumnus Frank L. Palmer (an 1885 graduate) about starting a drama club at GA. Mr. Palmer accepted the advisor duties, and the Germantown Academy Dramatics Society was born. In 1895, The Dramatics Society changed its name [to the Belfry Club].”
Belfry founder Palmer wrote the club’s first production, “Married Life.” Since that debut the group has produced a wide variety of shows. Among them: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals;” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby;” Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid;” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury” and “The Pirates of Penzance;” Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls;” Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest;” Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap;” Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park;” Cy Coleman’s “Sweet Charity;” Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods;” and Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” “Hamlet,” “Twelfth Night” and, just last year, “King Lear.”
Some of the Belfry’s history is typical of school drama clubs. The students are offered a wide range of plays and musicals and are given opportunities to experience dramatic tragedy and comedy in both plays and musicals.
Until the 1960s, Germantown Academy was an all-boys school. During the period before that the student actors had to play both men’s and women’s roles, which often added to the hilarity of the comedies and the impact of the tragedies. It’s fair to remember, of course, that men played Shakespeare’s women during the Bard’s lifetime.
With the financial troubles facing public schools, the arts is one of the first things that is often sacrificed when school districts tighten their belts. That’s not the case at Germantown Academy, according to K. Richardson, GA’s Upper School drama teacher and Belfry director.
Richardson, 43, who grew up in Strafford (Main Line), attended Ithaca College and graduated from Vassar in 1993 with a degree in cognitive science, a multi-disciplinary study of intelligence. After Vassar she went to the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.
Following that she decided to pursue acting and spent seven years as a free-lance actor. She appeared at the Vagabond Theatre, understudied at the Walnut Street Theatre and the Arden Theatre and did, in her words, “tons of children’s theater with the Philadelphia Theatre Caravan while also teaching stage classes and improv to students ranging from young kids to adults at the Walnut and the Actors Center.”
Germantown Academy hired her to lead the Upper School drama program and the Belfry Club 11 years ago. With its lengthy and distinguished theater history, GA wanted to take the program to the next level.
“When they hired me and our technical director, Bill Kingsbury,” said Richardson, “we were people who had seven eight, nine, 10 years experience as working theater professionals. They were very much interested in having performance-based classes. I teach music theater. I teach improv. They’re get-up-on-your-feet-and-do-things classes, not ‘Let’s sit down and study the history of drama.’
“What I bring to the drama program is working as an actor and director. As close as possible within the confines of an academic institution, we’re going through the same process other actors do. Whatever we do is going to be up on the stage.”
Historically the drama program, like many of its counterparts at other schools, involved students who were participating in many other activities, sports included. With all the demands students face now, that has changed. “If you’re going to do Belfry,” Richardson said, “it’s impossible to do sports [as well]. If you’re going to do Belfry, it’s three hours every day after school,” which is when the sports teams are practicing or playing games.
The current program includes full productions of a play and a musical each year. The school, Richardson says, has never censored the shows she’s chosen to do. The most important thing about the Belfry, and something that she says has been the case throughout its history, is that it’s a place where students will accept anyone who comes in and gives his/her best.
“Everybody’s working together,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing to have these kids who work so hard in so many areas of their lives come in and have this be their focus. That’s a gift.”
The Belfry’s reputation is not just limited to the GA family. In 2009 Philadelphia Magazine rated the program Richardson runs as the best high school drama program in the Philadelphia area. “Like the athletic teams,” Richardson said, “it’s a great public source of pride for the school.” Something it has been since its founding 118 years ago.
For more information about the Belfry Club, call 267-405-7216 or email email@example.com