by Lou Mancinelli
The School District of Philadelphia’s budget is in such a poor state that teachers are forced to pay out of their own pockets and organize fundraising efforts on their own if they want to offer some types of extracurricular activities for their students, or even buy supplies for their classrooms.
Such has been the case for the past decade at the Charles W. Henry School in West Mt. Airy, where the musical performed by students each year, directed by Nikki Paulino Trisdorfer, the school’s music teacher, is the result of a community effort navigated by Trisdorfer.
Students at Henry will perform “Into The Woods,” a musical by Stephen Sondheim, who also wrote “Sweeney Todd” and the lyrics to “West Side Story.” The show intertwines numerous fairy tales like “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” into one cohesive production, May 29 and 30, 7 p.m., and May 31, 1 p.m., at the school, located at 601 Carpenter Lane, across the street from Weavers Way. This is the ninth show produced by Trisdorfer, who is currently in her 10th year of teaching.
The show features a Cinderella who raps, a theft-happy Little Red Riding Hood and a beanstalk in the middle of the forest. When a baker and his wife learn they’ve been cursed with childlessness by a witch next door, they embark on a quest to find the special objects needed to break the spell. To get them, they must swindle, lie and steal from Cinderella, Little Red and Jack. “If I didn’t do it,” said Trisdorfer, about putting on the performance, “who would?”
For Trisdorfer, the approximately 200 hours of unpaid extra time she invests in the production each year outweighs the effects of not putting on a student performance. Rehearsals take place three or four days a week for two hours at a time, starting in mid-February and running until the end of May. Sometimes the kids meet at Trisdorfer’s house on Saturdays. “Every year I kind of wonder if it’s going to happen,” she said.
But what if the musical didn’t happen and there were even fewer outlets for creative expression presented to the children in our schools? “We’d be raising a bunch of robots to just go do work and have no creativity at all,” said Trisdorfer.
So every year the show must go on. “It’s like don’t even bother asking,” said Trisdorfer, about attempting to receive funding from the district. “They’re basically saying I’m lucky to be in a good school.”
According to Trisdorfer, this is common in schools across the city. That means each year she faces the puzzle of how to raise the close to $2,000 to put on the performance. That amount covers the cost of buying the rights to put on the musical, which this year costs $675, fabric for costumes, materials for set design and other items, like a playbill. “The school district doesn’t think the performances are important enough to invest in,” she said. “We’re pretty much on our own.”
“In terms of what we can provide during the school day, it’s healthy in terms of what it could be,” said Frank Machos, the school district’s director of music education. (Almost all arts programs in the district were cut this year.)
At the Henry School each year the money comes from a variety of sources like friends, grants and family. For the past two years, Ron Recko, a friend of Trisdorfer’s father and former president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, has helped. This year, Recko donated more than $600 he earned from a flea market he hosted May 4 at the Friends of the Fountain Plaza during the Chestnut Hill Home & Garden Festival. In addition to his own money, Recko has persuaded some local businesses to contribute to the cause. And while the school has received grants from Councilwoman Cindy Bass and from the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill Teachers Fund, it’s not nearly enough.
Trisdorfer must spend her own money first, and then she is reimbursed. In early April she put $600 on her credit card. Before that she spent $1,000.
“It’s just ridiculous that I have to do that, but there’s no way around it,” she said.
If it weren’t for the help of the local community, the show’s $2000 cost would be much higher. For example, lights are donated, and sound is run by Al Grey Jr. (son of jazz trombone great Al Grey), whose two children, eight graders Alyssa and Alex, are in the musical. Grey donates the materials from Out of Sound, his sound company.
And there’s Trisdorfer’s “right hand woman,” Jenny Aiello, who makes the costumes, even though her daughter is still too young to be in the performance. Ringo Hanson helps build the sets. His daughter, Paula, is in the musical.
So while the district’s deficit, called a “doomsday budget” by various media outlets, is a horrifying reality, Trisdorfer, the 45 students who make up the cast and crew, and various members of the community are turning rotten lemons into something less sour to drink.
“Everybody’s arguing about money, and nobody’s remembering we’re here for the kids,” said Trisdorfer, 31, who lives in Mt. Airy and was recently married.
But at the Henry School a huge performing success story, aside from the fact the musical even happens at all, has emerged. Eighth-grader Dominique Swift, 12, realized her own talent for the stage. Since first performing at the school, White has joined the cast of HBO’s hit drama “Boardwalk Empire.”
For tickets to “Into the Woods” (adults, $10; kids 4 to 14, $5) and more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-951-4006.