Wayside props help revive academy’s theater program

By Josette Keelor

The new theater program at Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock is small, with only 11 cadets in the drama class and an after-school club just beginning. Now armed with costumes and props they received from Wayside Theatre in Middletown, the long-since disbanded program has a fighting chance.

English teacher Michelle Harper, who also leads drama and the yearbook committee, said what Wayside gave the school was “a very generous and unexpected windfall for us.”

“Obviously it was very overwhelming for us, it’s just — it’s awesome,” she said.

After Wayside’s Aug. 8 announcement that it would have to close its doors for lack of funding, Harper contacted board president Byron Brill, not sure what to expect.

Initially, she said, Brill was on vacation so she didn’t hear back right away.

“I bugged him for a couple weeks,” Harper said. “I felt sort of like a scavenger, but I heard that they were closing.”

“We’re a new drama program, we have nothing,” Harper said.

Until its closing, Wayside Theatre was the second-oldest professional theater in Virginia and had a long history interacting with community youth through its Emerging Artist Program and Young Playwright Festival, and through the busloads of school children who would come to see matinee performances.

“As a person I had visited there,” Harper said. “Every year on Christmas Eve with my family. … That was a big deal.”

After talking with Brill, she arranged to bring her drama class to the theater on Sept. 18 and take what he had set aside for the cadets. She said Brill and another theater volunteer verified what the drama class took, since she didn’t want to take too much. The theater also planned to donate furniture and fabrics to other groups around the community, she said.

That day the drama students went home with wigs, hats, makeup, shoes, ties, props such as watches and “any costumes that were there, which were mostly like shirts,” Harper said.

“Anything that was theatrical in nature,” Harper said they accepted. “We basically cleaned them out.” And there are still more props the cadets haven’t picked up yet.

“It was great,” she said.

Harper, who’s been teaching at the academy for two years, said she didn’t know when the school’s previous theater program ended.

Sarajane Trier, director of marketing at MMA, said the drama program is part of a series of new electives the school has implemented, including journalism, a bagpipe band and a history elective on imperialism.

“We really have some big things happening over here,” Trier said. “I don’t think we’ve had drama here for the past few years.”

This December, the drama class plans to perform “A Christmas Carol,” and Harper intends a larger production for the spring.

Parents have been lending their skills with lighting and sound, she said, “and we’re working on getting new curtains, ’cause we’re working on a stage that used to be a chapel,” she said.

Through Wayside, Harper said she found the “right time, right person that was generous enough, that was willing to work with us.”

“We wear uniforms every day, so having wigs and hats just does amazing things,” Harper said. “It has really helped the program come to life. I think it is just a big treasure trove.”

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com