As longtime Schenectady High School theater director Bill Ziskin stepped away from the program over the past year, he made way for new director Leia Depeche.
But Ziskin, who described his role in the past year as one of a producer and mentor, didn’t overflow with advice.
“Don’t let the kids use the Kuerig [coffee maker]) was the extent of the advice,” Depeche said. “He definitely wanted me to make it my own program. He definitely didn’t dictate that this is how it should be.”
Ziskin co-founded the Blue Roses Theater Company with Tim Dugan at Schenectady High School in 1998. Nearly 20 years later, Ziskin is set to retire in December after over 30 years of teaching drama in Schenectady schools.
“I’ll miss the kids gaining a sense of pride and having a sense of accomplishment, collaborating and working hard together and being proud of what they’ve done,” Ziskin said last week. “That really was the chief reward I got out of the work.”
After directing his final Blue Roses production in the spring of 2016, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Ziskin has been stepping back from the program and turning direction over to Depeche, a 24-year-old theater teacher who grew up in Skaneateles, earned her theater education degree from SUNY Potsdam and joined Schenectady High School last year.
“This is my first year knowing what I’m doing,” Depeche said last week during after-school rehearsals.
She eased in to her first year as Blue Roses director with a series of short, student-written shows, which also doubled as a chance for to get to know some of the school’s emerging theater stars. They also performed the satire “The Mouse that Roared.”
The company puts on “A Wrinkle in Time” this month, Nov. 15 to 18, before turning to “The Addams Family” musical in the spring, marking Depeche’s first year with a full slate of feature shows.
“The shows I picked this year have a very strong family [connection],” Depeche said. “It’s all about family and the quirks that make up a family. Your cast and crew are like a second family.”
While Depeche is free to lead the Blue Roses Company in her own direction, it was established with a clear vision that Ziskin has worked to maintain ever since: a theater that challenged students with sophisticated material; a theater that exposed students to professional artists and high expectations; a theater welcome to all students and all interests.
“We have athletes, we have musicians, we have math and science students all involved in the theater and all accepting of one another,” Ziskin said.
The Blue Roses’ long history didn’t appear lost on Depeche.
“This program in Schenectady is very rare to have in a public-school setting,” Depeche said of the school’s long-running theater company. “It’s a thrill to run it, and it’s a huge job.”
Still coming together
With a dozen days until opening night, the pieces of the show on Friday were still spread throughout the high school Black Box theater. A sound specialist on residency from Proctors worked with members of the crew tasked with controlling the background music and sounds of the shows, others finished building small bits of set, while still more students scurried about the rafters that hang above the theater seats.
Students on stage played out scenes as Depeche sat in the front row, following along with a script as she read the parts of missing students, fine-tuned blocking instructions and urged students to clearly enunciate their lines.
“Louder, honey, like 10 times louder,” Depeche told a student as they practiced scenes, her demeanor constantly calm and relaxed.
Depeche said A Wrinkle in Time “champions young people” and gives them the platform of leaders and heroes.
“A recurring theme is the adults are kind of clueless,” said junior Connor Juedes, who plays Charles Murry, the lost father a group of kids set out to find.
The show is also infused with realism and the kinds of scenes that call for broad imagination not just from the actors but from the audience as well.
“You come with your imagination ready to go,” Depeche said. “We are supposed to take you about half the way, and your imagination takes you the rest of the way.”
One of those scenes played out as students rehearsed on stage. They had “wrinkled” through time and space for the first time, landing on a faraway planet. Led by a trio of mysterious women, the misses, the kids pick up the tools they eventually need to save their father.
“The kids have tessered for the first time and Mrs. Whatsit is explaining what tessering is. That’s where we are,” said Sarah Durocher, who plays Meg, the show’s protagonist. She was watching from the crowd as another Meg ran through the scenes.
A group of students rolled out a scaffolding covered in sheets and outfitted with more sheets tied together as wings; and actors held up an umbrella from atop the scaffolding: a head.
“Now, Mrs. Whatsit is changing into a centaur,” Durocher said.
While the actors moved through scenes, unrelated sound and lighting maneuvers disrupted lines and other students shuffled around the theater, working on the countless tasks still needing completion.
“Even if the week before the show it looks like it’s not going to happen, like the whole thing is going to fall apart, with high school shows that’s how it’s always been and it comes together,” Depeche said.
Philip Morris, executive director of Proctors, called Ziskin the “single most important influence” during his child’s experience at Schenectady High School. Ziskin built and maintained a culture of professional work and expectations and introduced countless students to life in the theater, Morris said.
“How many public schools think about their theater program in a way they call it a company?” Morris said. “They do challenging work and engage a broad section of [shows], and they’ve been doing it forever.”
The school’s theater program has served as a refuge of sorts for students facing trauma at home or struggling to engage with school. It’s given generations of students their first taste of the spotlight and instilled a love for literary classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — even if not in the original form.
“The biggest thing is that kids have somewhere they can come after school and do theater; they love theater and that’s why they are here,” Depeche said. “When I was in high school, having rehearsal was that thing that got me through the day.”
Ziskin and Depeche have different styles, the students said. Styles that work in their own ways.
“She brings in a different energy and light to it. It brings a different creative aspect to it too,” Durocher said. “Mr. Ziskin is nurturing in a mature sense. Mrs. Depeche is very nurturing in an imaginative sense. It’s super, super be yourself; you are who your are and that’s a good thing.”