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Choosing Wisely

Local high school theater department heads take many factors into consideration when selecting plays.

Denise Perrino has been teaching and directing since 1978, so she has had a lot of practice in choosing plays for her students. When it comes to high school students there is a lot to keep in mind.

"You keep in mind the talent that you have at the school and you keep in mind your audience," said Perrino, who is head of the McLean High School theater department. "People who come to shows in McLean are expecting certain ideas, and I don't necessarily have to go totally with that, but you have to keep a mixture of classic and contemporary shows."

Phyliss Jaffe, head of the theater department at Langley High School, says she takes similar considerations when she is choosing which shows to put on during the school year. While Jaffe says she does not pre-cast anything, she does have to keep her choice of actors in mind.

"For example, I wouldn't want to do 'Gypsy' unless I knew there was someone who could play Rose," said Jaffe. "Now someone may show up that I hadn't thought of and be wonderful for the part, and that would be great, but I tend to stay away from things like that."

One year she chose to do "Sweet Charity" because it had a lot of female parts and she has always noticed that more girls tend to audition than boys.

"The guys labeled it as a 'chick play,'" said Jaffe with amusement.

She added that student input does not go unheard.

"We just did 'Damn Yankees' and I was absolutely thrilled with it," said Jaffe. "A student suggested it last year ... and before that we did 'Robin Hood' which was also suggested by the students."

It is only March, but Jaffe already has students asking about what she has planned for next fall.

"I just tell them to give me suggestions," she said.

The students seem to appreciate being included in all parts of the production process.

"Once we get started we have even more input," said Amanda Johnson, a senior at Langley.

Both she and senior Katie Damon were in the school's recent production of "Damn Yankees," and say that it was a great experience.

"We always give lots of ideas," said Damon.

DENISE PERRINO ALSO pays attention to the interests of her student body, and she encourages them to continually read plays for class. She has even had students go so far as to write two-page letters as to why they feel that a certain play should be done.

"This year they brought 'The Good Doctor' to me by Neil Simon, so we did that show," said Perrino. "I try to give out different possibilities for students to choose from."

Perrino is currently in the process of directing "Our Town," which was written by Thornton Wilder. She says that it is unusual that in 30 years of directing, this is one play that she missed.

"It's been really interesting," said Perrino. "It's a very old, old play, however it has a lot of basic truths that are still around. The students are doing a really wonderful job."

Both McLean and Langley high schools put on musicals every other year. Phyliss Jaffe says she works very closely with the choral department and the choral director during these times.

"We really do have an equal say because obviously if a student can't sing, then they can't be in the role," she said.

Jaffe has also noticed a definite trend in what brings in the crowds.

"It's a double-edged sword ... choosing something that will get an audience versus something that will challenge the students," she said. "If it is something they have heard of, you get more people, but some of the more challenging shows are ones that people have never heard of."