Sophisticated Ladies: Featured faculty shine in production

Julia Goldberg and Nshera Tutu

Not only are the school’s faculty devoted to our academic community, they can also get down to the rhythm of the Duke. Since February, ten faculty members have dedicated hours of their out-of-school time to the Upper Division production of Sophisticated Ladies.

The faculty include science, foreign language, English, and theatre teachers, as well as employees from around the school. Some of these cast members are experienced performers while some have never stepped foot on a stage.

“As a former theatre professional, I know how much work a musical takes, and I’ve never before done a musical and worked a full time job simultaneously. The challenge of the music, though, is irresistible,” Administrative Assistant Ennis Smith said.

“When we do a musical, each actor, singer, and dancer has to be present for every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday rehearsal, but when it comes to the dance concert, we may work on a dance piece and then move on to another dance piece and not see the first one for several weeks,” Theatre, Dance and Film studies Department Chair Alison Kolinski said.

“I was sweetly encouraged to join by [co-directors] Denise DiRenzo and Kolinski,” English teacher Rebecca Bahr said. “It’s so much fun to see what goes on in the production, and the talent of the students and faculty is impressive.”

Bahr and theatre teacher Benjamin Posner are working together in a duet, as are Gibby Thomas (12) and Smith. “We’re all working as equals, and that builds a sense of deep admiration and community,” Bahr said.

“When I heard about the show, I was intrigued, as it was a revue of Duke Ellington, whose music I really enjoy,” Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. Wallenfang previously learned swing dancing in college and graduate school. He volunteered for the swing number in this production, and will perform it with Dean of Students Dr. Susan Delanty.

Delanty was drawn in by the show’s emphasis on singing and dancing, as well as the opportunity to work side by side with students. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to be working on this spectacular production with these students; they’re fabulous,” Delanty said. “Sometimes I, or another faculty member, ask them for help with a specific move. It’s a shift in dynamic; they then have the opportunity to teach me,” she said.

Preparation was neither an easy nor a quick task: for Delanty, the most difficult aspect was the scheduling, she said. “We had to squeeze a lot of rehearsal into what was not a lot of time.  I practiced the choreography outside of rehearsal hours, and Wallenfang and I even came in a few times over spring break to rehearse our number.”

Bahr, too, found scheduling difficult, especially because of childcare. “It resulted in long days, but by the end, you feel proud of yourself for putting in the time. The production brings the community together, and that’s wonderful,” she said.

“We have so many talented students, who are just so amazing, and then there are some of us faculty, who are just there freelancing, for fun,” Wallenfang said. “You quickly realize that you can’t become a good dancer with just a few hours a week…you need to find the time to perfect everything, and that can be a challenge,” he said.

To prepare for the role, Smith intently listened to music from the period, including Ellington’s work as well as others’, he said. “You listen to the notes on a tape recorder at the beginning of rehearsal, and then you listen to it every day…the only way to achieve expertise is to live with the music,” Smith said.

Smith recommends that faculty participates in productions because it is wonderful to put yourself in a situation where the roles are not strictly just student and faculty, he said. “In the rehearsal hall performers are equal. Whether you’re a teacher or a student doesn’t matter; the process demands that you fail in front of each other before you succeed.”

It’s inspiring to see the diversity of interests that students have, Wallenfang said. “For any of us who are involved in this [production], coaching, robotics, or in whatever it may be, it’s really eye-opening to see aspects of our students’ lives outside of a typical academic setting.”

“The show was chosen to highlight the talent we currently have, keeping the number of quality dancers and singers in mind, and it does just that,” Delanty said.

Horace Mann Dance Company (HMDC) co-president Juli Moreira (12) feels that having faculty in the show is fun for the faculty, the student performers, and especially for the audience, who have the chance to see their teachers or co-workers perform on stage, she said.

Students, too, can view their teachers through a new lens. “I’ve learned that having a teacher in a certain subject doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests. We have an incredibly talented faculty cast and I can’t wait for everyone to see them in the show,” Moreira said.