Calhoun High School junior Jackson Katz is a member of the On Tour Club. Working on lighting and sound projects, he was eager to know more about the whole On Tour experience, what it might be like to experience the four-year curriculum. Your NewsMag was with Jackson as he interviewed with the program’s director, Sal Salerno, in between rehearsals of the program’s last production of the season, a coupling of ‘Monty Python ‘s Edukashionel Show” and “Grimm’s Fairy Tales For Old and New.”
BY JACKSON KATZ
Jackson: How did you pick the latest play? Was it theme based or seasonal based?
Mr. Salerno: We always schedule our performances about a year in advance, and were offered the opportunity from a company we use that licenses plays and provides theatrical rights worldwide. I got a call from a vice president who said we had done a great job on “We Will Rock You,” and said Eric Idle from Monty Python is working on a new piece for schools, would I be interested in work shopping it? I said sure. I was figuring out my season, I just announced shows and picked “We Will Rock You,” so thought maybe we could fit it in somewhere alongside a fairy tale show. Over last summer (2017), it became available, so I shifted the fairy tale show so we could do both. It’s all the TV sketches from the Monty Python TV series that ran in the mid-70s to late-70s. Not all, but it’s a selection of the best sketches. It’s called the “Monty Python Edukashionel Show.”
Jackson: Is there music in it?
Mr. Salerno. Yes, the “Lumber Jack Song” and one called “The Money Song.” It’s real multi-presentational. The theater company made this as a workshop and they charged me with the task of making it accessible for schools to do, with gender-neutral casting. They didn’t want six guys or a number of guys. They wanted to see how many people we could use: how many girls could we work in, for example, so we’re work shopping it to basically see it comes out. This is the first time it is working for the company.
Jackson: So this is a double bill? What’s the benefit for the students?
Mr. Salerno: At the end of the year the seniors have to do projects. They have final projects and they’re performance projects, synthesizing projects of everything they learned, and what they’re interested in. They choose and many of them want to direct something, or put something together. It’s been a challenge the last few years as the schedule has gotten tight in May and June. So I told them that, rather than cut the fairy tale show we were going to do, some seniors interested could do some of those children’s pieces as their final project. And that way we kept it in the schedule. I could spend the full time doing the Monty Python project, and I decided to do one of the children’s pieces as well to spread the wealth around and give seniors an extra opportunity.
Jackson talks with Sal Salerno on what it’s like to direct Calhoun’s On Tour program
Jackson: The project that normally is done in June now is not going to be done?
Mr. Salerno: No. June is the senior projects, and I’ve got 20 some odd seniors. And they all have to a project. It has to be based on the curriculum that we cover in senior year. And every year, we have juniors and seniors in the same class, and so the seniors one year, the seniors and juniors one year will cover things like the foundations of modern drama, which is what they’re covering this year: Ibsen and Chechov, Strindburg and O’Neill, and William Oscar. Then they cover the musical, the history of the musical, and this year, it so happens that the history of the musical is what i like to call the silver age: 1957 and up.
Jackson: What is meant by the Silver Age?
Mr. Salerno: Well, the golden age of Broadway musicals was the late 40s to the 50s, featuring Rogers and Hammerstein, Learner and Low, and all of those guys. You also have the early age, the 20s and 30s, Porter and Gershwin, Jerome Kern and those talents. Some students will decide to do a review on one of the composers. Or they will do a theme. Because we cover Shakespeare every year, that’s another option. So somebody’s going to do fathers and daughters in Shakespeare or great kings. One year a student did great villains in Shakespeare, using different monologues from different plays and put them together. We had a curriculum one year in which students learned about Broadway personalities, and one girl decided to do a 15-minute one- woman show based on Ethel Merman. She had a big loud voice and she had a big brassy personality and she did everything, starting with “I Got Rhythm” and “Anything Goes” tothe disco the version that Merman did at the end of her life. So, it varies,
Jackson: How do you choose your actors? Are some better at playing a specific character, while others are better for humorous parts and still others better at dramatics?
Mr. Salerno: Yes, sometimes you know. Basically, we’re trying to train them to be capable in everything. But some persons have an affinity for certain things. Some people have vocal affinities so that they speak well and they have the skill of memorizing. Other times, you get people that do have comic ability, who can really get you to laugh. They have that sense of timing and stuff. So that does happen. Sometimes students do everything we ask them to do but get stuck. And then then there are students who, given their shot, come out and do a show and it’s like: Where’d that come from? Where’s that person been? I’d never seen that before.
Jackson: Is that there an Ah Ha moment for you in discovering them?
Mr. Salerno: We know that they’re going be okay. And so we’ve cast them and we know they’re going be good. We don’t know if they’re going to be great. And that’s where we get that surprise. That kid who all of a sudden just bursts on the scene. But there are some people who always move up. We had one girl here many years ago who never did anything small. I mean she did small roles, but she did them with attack. She could attack. She came in and she played one role as a freshman in a musical where everybody was like: she’s a freshman? And then in her sophomore year, she would play another role and everybody asked: She’s a sophomore? Then junior year, she got the lead, and senior year, she had the lead lead.
Jackson: That goes back to the question about how you choose your actors. Sometimes the actors are right there in front of you.
Mr. Salerno: They show me. I see them, I tell them what to do. They know what to do if they follow through and they do the right work, then and obviously I’m going to see their ability.
Jackson: What do you mean by the lead lead?
Mr. Salerno: In her sophomore year she was in some shows. She was playing a role that was the main character, but there was another main character and then a couple of other main characters, but then in her senior year, it was a show about the main character. She was it. She was the main character. So, I mean, everybody else was secondary. There was no other female character of any importance in the show.
Jackson: Technically, what is the lighting supposed to provide? Is it more diffuse, open and bright in musicals, and more mute in dramas, for instance?
Mr. Salerno: No. The purpose of lighting is to illuminate the stage and to make the actors visible to the audience. In some shows, we have very basic lighting. In a contemporary play or even a Shakespeare play, the lighting is going to be fairly simple, in that there are not a lot of cues, or the cues repeat. So you will have a daylight scene, and an evening scene, and then you have perhaps a specially focused scene with a very intense spot. But they repeat, as opposed to a musical where everything changes. There’s a daylight scene, a night scene, there’s a dance number, there’s a musical number, there’s a song. So, the difference is, really a matter of volume rather than quality.
Jackson: I remember in the Joseph play the lights were changing color constantly, and then in “We Will Rock You” you had strobe lights. That seemed a little bit more than just like illumination to the stage.
Mr. Salerno: Musicals often call for special effects and in that case, they needed something special. “We Will Rock You” is a special rock-and-roll show. So all the music, all the lighting has to be rock- and-Roll style lighting. So, it’s a style of lighting as opposed to the style of lighting used in Joseph. Joseph was much more basic, but we did have a lot of other things added into it.
Jackson: Do you tend to focus more on elaborate productions so that all, or more, students can be involved?
Mr. Salerno: We try to pick productions that provide opportunities for a lot of people, and try to balance it out. A few years ago we had a lot of students in the class who were really good singers. I wanted to do play that had many lead roles for singers and I decided on “Into the Woods.” It has a very small cast, 20 people is pushing it. I think we had 24. We pushed it a little, though it didn’t necessarily serve the program. We have 100 people in the program and we’re only giving 18 people parts. That can cause some concern for students who come to learn. So we did a second musical that year to compensate, which was big and featured lots of people in it. Occasionally, we get to move around.
Jackson: What will the students learn from this experience in regard to On Tour and the play?
Mr. Salerno: To be well-rounded individuals. They learn how to do multiple things at once; they can do their studies, they can do their rehearsals with their friends. Some are doing other activities like newspaper or kickline. Perhaps the biggest thing they get out of it is the opportunity to learn how to balance their time and how to time manage. Let’s not forget the knowledge learned. Many will go to school and not study theater, but take a theater class for their elective and come back and say “I aced that class ‘cause its everything you taught us in ninth grade.” We give them a very intensive ninth grade study track with a very advanced curriculum. The more they learn, the more it’s going be helpful because we teach history by constantly doing those same plays. You don’t simply do what’s contemporary but are acting and working in the plays written in the 40s. They’re doing plays written in the 50s. They’re doing Shakespeare, they’re doing the Greeks. They’re doing French classical comedy. So, everything’s always being recycled. You have to know about all the different eras to succeed in college and its helpful to be a well-rounded individual and the colleges like a well-rounded individual.
Jackson: What are some of your favorite plays?
Mr. Salerno: I obviously I like Shakespeare as I’ve done probably 20 different plays of his. I’ve done all but one comedy and I’ve done three tragedies and three romances and a lot of people don’t do the romances, but we’ve done “The Tempest” and “A Winter’s Tale” three times. We’ve actually done “Pericles” as well.
Jackson Katz: Where did you get your passion for theater? What schools did you attend and what is your experience?
Mr. Salerno: At my high school, Our Lady of the Valley High school in Orange, New Jersey, a very small school with 104 people in my senior class and the whole school of about 400 kids, we did one musical a year. In sophomore year we did a little play called “Carnival,” which few people have likely heard of. It was a hit musical in the early 60s and had one song called “What Makes the World Go Round,” which was set in a French carnival at after WWI. I was in the chorus and I got on stage in the second act. I remember seeing all the lights out there as I was performing and I just felt really comfortable there. I really liked it and decided I wanted to go into English class and read parts and one acts and things – with funny voices! I I eventually decided I should go into theater and film. I applied to study theater in college and I applied to a few schools, including Hofstra, which had a Shakespeare Festival. So it fulfilled my interest in Shakespeare
Jackson: How did On Tour start?
Mr. Salerno: On Tour started in 1973 with two teachers, Gail Parkinson and Jim Drake. Jim was in charge of the English Department and the school wanted to do a district program and I think they pulled them in. And then it just grew. In the mid-to- late ‘70s there were at least 10 productions a year, but there were also three people directing. There were a lot more people in Calhoun then and the productions were much smaller scale. There might be a big production here and there, but they were doing little things all over the place.
Jackson: Because there were more students in Calhoun they got more productions out?
Mr. Salerno: Yes. And they were very low budget. They were doing the work, but not with all the trimmings.
Jackson: So how did you get involved in On Tour?
Mr. Salerno: I was looking for a job and I had gotten a few interviews up in Marmaroneck and I came close. I was the finalist but I didn’t get it. And I ended up getting a job in Mineola as a permanent sub running the drama program because the teacher was taking a leave from surgery. At the end of the year, with that job coming to an end, there was an opening here, and I came in to interview and I got the job in August. They had had several others that didn’t work out. Drake and Parkinson did it for a long time, and Drake eventually died. There was a whole big blow up at one point and then Drake died. They knew they had to hire somebody full time and they hired me. The irony is that the person who got the job at Mamaroneck was a guy from Calhoun, I got his job down the line.
Jackson: What is the difference in goals and experiences between those who do On Tour as an elective and those who do On Tour as a four-year program?
Mr. Salerno: Well, you mean people who do it as a club. We don’t get a lot of people doing as an elective. They take the class and they become part of On Tour. There are people who are club members who aren’t in the class. It varies. Some of them get very involved and some of them are involved here or there, but occasionally you get somebody. I had a student come in a few years ago. He was in the music department and the music program and he said he might like to be in the show. I think we put him in something as a junior and then as a senior, he was actually in a main role and he really had a good time. So he went to college for music and switched to drama and now that’s what he does. So it really was a spring board for him.
Jackson: I’m aware that there have been people that only did the class as a senior
Mr. Salerno: Yes, they get something out of it you know it’s a little catch up for some of them, but they do all right with it. One student was in a couple shows, and then others might be interested in building scenery, or painting.
Jackson: So what kind of homework do you assign and what type of testing do you give?
Mr. Salerno: It varies. Some of the homework is projects. Some of it is performance assignments. A lot of times, the work is done in class, but there are tests. In ninth grade there are a number of tests. In 10th grade there are written projects that they have to do, but a lot of stuff is performance. You know, ninth graders build models. 12th graders this year made masks. So, sometimes there’re computer things where they’re doing computer drafting, or set designs. So, it varies. The senior project as a three-part assignment. There is a performance section in the middle. There’s a research section at the beginning and there’s a reflection section at the end. So, they have to write about their experience at the end. But there is also a presentation element. They can present and become comfortable talking to people. They can be comfortable in a presentation setting or in a business setting. We have a lot of kids that go on to law and medicine. Those that go into medicine will give them a good bedside manner.
Jackson: Are there success stories that come out of On Tour?
Mr. Salerno: When they come out of here they go in different directions, yes. One boy came out of here and decided to do a double major in communications drama. He ended up acting on Broadway. But he liked comic books so much he went to Marvel Comics years ago and said “I’d like to do a theatrical production of Spiderman.” And he created a show called “Spiderman Live.” Only, it was with acrobats and trampolines and actors and guywires. And they did it at Radio City and he took it to every major venue around the country – and made millions.
Another student got a gig writing for Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network. He then worked on a parody of star wars. So he went up to Skywalker ranch and met with George Lucas and did a whole production thing up there. George Lucas like the stuff so much he then called the student up and asked him if he’d like write a Star Wars cartoon? He did all the preliminary work and Disney bought it.
with Douglas Finlay