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The City Journals

Volunteers help stars sparkle on stage

May 07, 2018 02:28PM ● By Jet Burnham

The cast of “Singin’ in the Rain” featured 32 tap dancers. (Photo/Matthew Binns)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

It took a lot of brainstorming to get it to rain on the set of West Hills Middle School’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” But Director Judy Binns and Producer Clarisse Offen knew, with their force of nearly 50 parent volunteers, it would happen.

“The parents stepped up this year in a big-time way,” said Offen.

Offen and Binns rely on the support of parent volunteers for every aspect of their shows—from the set, props and costumes to donating supplies and sewing, cutting, painting, replacing lights, fixing mics and trouble-shooting.

“They find out what the strengths of their volunteers are and then simply empower them to do what they do best,” said volunteer Jeanie Hawkins. “They want nothing less than what is best for our kids, and they draw people to them that want the same thing.”

Hawkins and her husband, Josh, both have experience in construction and were tasked with making it rain without water touching the stage. Offen purchased a confetti machine from Spain (with her own money) that had to be adapted to an American plug and adjusted to cover a wider area of the stage. The machine could spew 10 pounds of confetti, which sparkled like rain in the stage lights.

 “The reaction from Bryan (who played Don) and the rest of the cast when we made it rain for the first time on stage was priceless,” said Hawkins.

The cast comprised 96 actors and 24 stage crew members.

“If you think about it in terms of the volume of children we had and all the logistics of the different set pieces, it was quite an undertaking,” said Offen. She and Binns offered a part to every student who auditioned. 

There are no participation fees, no compulsory volunteer hours and no ticket fees for West Hills productions. They rely on volunteers and donations from a supportive community.

“We hope they enjoy what they see and that they will be supportive enough to give us something for the following year,” Offen said.

As for the thousands of hours Offen, Binns and Music Director Sherri Anderson dedicated to the show, “Our paycheck is the smiles on their faces and the look in their eyes,” said Offen.

Offen said the production was very popular—every show was sold out—because students are held to a professional standard.

“We treat them like they are capable of doing hard things—which they are,” said Offen. “It's amazing what happens when you tell the kids ‘you can do this.’ They don’t know that they can’t. They just trust us and they work hard.”

Binns held a summer workshop to train a few students to tap dance for the show. Thirty-two students signed up and all gained such proficiency; they were choreographed into big musical numbers with highly technical moves. 

“I don’t think the audience expected it to be that many kids being able to do it,” said Offen. “They could tap everything [Binns] could throw at them.”

Offen said Binns has a gift working with teens.

“She can pull out of them all these skills and abilities that they didn't know they had—she’s phenomenal,” she said.

Parent Renae Dyatt said students rise to the occasion when they are given a chance to share their talents.

“When you take an interest in the kids and help them know of their worth, they’ll just shine,” Dyatt said. “The plays have helped many kids—including my daughter—come out of their shell.”

Binns said being involved in a theatrical production is beneficial for students, especially during their difficult teen years.

“They find their place, they find their confidence, they find their voice, they find their friends, they find a family—they find it on our stage,” said Binns.

She believes theater provides students a place to shine outside of academics and athletics.

“It’s unique to musical theater—everybody walks away a winner,” said Binns. “The kids know they are part of something magical, and they’re super proud of themselves—as they should be.”