navbar

Recollections

    The Roost has received wonderful reflections from former students who were part of the Irving-ton High School theater program. Here are a few selections:

        Back in the 70s there were relatively few hard-and-fast rules at Irvington High. One was that you had to wear shoes. Another was that you had to take GYM class. I did not love gym. . . The minute I got wind that I could sign up for modern dance instead, I was there.
        Dance class was an utterly new experience: no desks, just the stage and the auditorium. Michael Penta was a different sort of teacher; as others have noted, he was first and foremost a theater professional—there was no condescension, his method was not didactic, but experiential. We learned by imitating, by participating, by trying our best. He demonstrated and encouraged us in the fundamentals of ballet, modern dance, balance, poise, presentation, confidence—skills relevant to all aspects of life. If "all the world is a stage," Michael Penta aimed to open our young eyes, to wake us up to an awareness of our bodily presence in the world.
        Sometimes we would arrive and, instead of stretching out in tights and leotards on the stage, we would sit in the audience and watch a film musical in the dark, enraptured by what Michael presented as a pinnacle of artistic coherence: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris. These classics took everything we were studying—song, dance, plot, costumes, and (most interesting to me) gorgeous painted scenery— and stirred them all together with precision and joy. Michael Penta revealed the exciting magic that is musical theater: he showed us how high the bar was set—and then we realized that was OUR bar to aspire to.
        One day Michael had us sit on the stage with blank white paper and magic markers and draw as we listened to music for inspiration. What a fun class! I had no idea at the time, but it was a turning point in my life.
        We handed in our drawings at the end of class. The next week, much to my amazement, Mi-chael asked if I would like to design scenery for the upcoming 1974 IHS musical, No, No, Nanette. From the start I was enraptured with the whole process: it was painting, it was art, but with a purpose, with a definite role to play in telling a story. The creative process was not isolating, but collaborative, fun, and exuberant. I would go to the high school theater after school, on weekends, spending

many hours (in between the actors' rehearsal times) working on the sets and drops, drawing program covers, touching up things once they were put together. Few experiences can match the excitement of seeing all the elements of a musical show come together at a dress rehearsal: the singing, the acting, the dancing, the costumes, the lights—and behind it all, the scenery. The whole always greater than the sum of its parts. Then followed the magical evenings watching the show performed before a real audience.

Nell Stifel's working rendering for a show curtain for No, No, Nanette in 1974.

    I designed four musicals at IHS: No, No, Nan-ette; Hello, Dolly!; Oklahoma! and Mame, each year becoming slightly “older,” as younger students joined the ranks. There was a tradition of behind-the-scenes work at IHS, stage crew, tech crew. Children participating in a creative structure, with a common goal, completely independent of their family—this is where they learn about hard work, technique, ambition, reward, and pride. The world of theater was indeed the equal of gym: teamwork, but not about sports.
        I loved painting scenery. Because of Michael Penta I felt I had somehow already "worked in the business"—and thus did not study theater in college, yet always found myself making a living by painting one type of scenery or another. Thanks to other, slightly older IHS grads Janet Storck, Eddie Fitzgerald, and David Lawson, I worked at first in theater and scene shops, then eventually in television in New York City.