Staging a comeback: Johnstown High theater set to return after pandemic and resignation of longtime director

Johnstown High School students rehearse for an upcoming musical on Wednesday.

Johnstown High School students rehearse for an upcoming musical on Wednesday.

About a month and a half into Seussical the Musical rehearsals, the school principal pulled Ashley Polidore aside. The longtime Johnstown Jr.-Sr. High School drama club director had just submitted his resignation, and Principal Scott Hale wanted to know if Polidore felt ready to take over.

Opening night was less than two months away, and Polidore, the 27-year-old assistant director, had never before led a musical production.

Nonetheless, Polidore said she was game for the job.

“So that day, instead of having a regular rehearsal, we just had a reset,” Polidore said during a recent rehearsal less than two weeks before opening night, which is set for Friday, March 25 at 7 p.m., beginning a weekend run of three shows at the Johnstown Performing Arts Center. Polidore spoke from atop a platform while she and Assistant Director Christopher DeConno hung pink pool noodles that were meant to evoke the clover on which Whoville sits.

For the student actors, doubt immediately set in after former drama club director Michael Burnett’s departure.

“I remember being really down,” said Conner Edel, a senior who plays the Cat in the Hat. “I don’t even think I really thought the show was going to go on. Not because I didn’t have faith in Ashley, but because we had all just been like ‘what is happening?’”

It wasn’t just the fact that Burnett, the drama club director of about a decade, had left unexpectedly in the middle of the spring musical’s production schedule. (In fact, at the time of writing Burnett was still listed as the school’s musical and play director through 2022.) It was also the fact that the pandemic had ground the school’s theater program to a halt for nearly two years.

In March 2020, the drama club had completed final rehearsals for Rock of Ages, which was set to be a grand production directed by Burnett. The online flyer for the production is still live, a digital artifact frozen in time that says “due to the evolving circumstances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, ticket sales are temporarily suspended while we decide the best course of action.”

The show never opened. Johnstown High theater has been dark ever since.

“That was really heartbreaking,” said Edel. “We had our last Saturday dress rehearsal, and then I woke up and they said the show has been canceled. That was the same day we found we were going into quarantine, so the world really did end.”

Feelings of deja vu emerged when Burnett left.

“The fact that there was a possibility that our musical might get canceled and I’m a senior, that can’t happen,” said Cece D’Amore, who plays the Grinch and a Wickersham Brother, among other roles in Seussical.

But at that first rehearsal led by Polidore, something changed.

“We just sat in a circle onstage and went from the beginning to the end of the show,” Polidore said. “I could feel the energy in the room shift to be more positive and happy and excited, and ready for a new beginning.”

Leaning on experience
Ashley Polidore doesn’t just direct–she dances. As the students perform grapevines, ball changes and shake their wrists, she mirrors the movements from the aisle.

But it isn’t just Polidore’s effervescence that has students believing in her–it’s also her experience. Polidore was Johnstown’s valedictorian in 2012. (She didn’t reveal this fact, but Principal Hale was happy to boast about his former student.) During high school, Polidore devoted most of her acting energy to community theater in Johnstown and neighboring communities. She graduated just before Burnett took over the directing role, and she said when she was a student, Johnstown’s high school drama club was struggling to find momentum.

After high school, Polidore studied chemical engineering at Clarkson, but she left during her senior year when she realized she wasn’t fulfilled by the career path she was pursuing. She moved to New York City to be an actor, where her dream was to land a role on Broadway. It didn’t happen. Instead, rejections piled up. In one particularly awful audition–she doesn’t recall the part–she forgot how to say her own name and then didn’t sing when the music started.

“I realized that the stress of auditioning and waking up at 5 in the morning and getting rejected and doing the same thing the next day was not good for me, and I didn’t want to keep doing that,” Polidore said. “So I moved back home in 2019 and decided that I wanted to be a teacher.”

She is currently a substitute teacher at Johnstown and is enrolled in online courses to work toward eventually becoming a full-time math teacher.

Whenever a student’s voice cracks during a song or an actor forgets his lines, Polidore can easily empathize.

“I tell them that I know exactly how they are feeling,” she said. “I’ve been in their shoes and it feels really bad, but it’s really OK just to move past it and get to the next thing.”

She also easily relates to the students because she herself is only 10 years removed from high school.

“I find them very easy to talk to. They are people. I don’t understand the people who are like ‘I don’t get teenagers.’ It’s not that hard to understand them if you remember for one second that being a teenager felt like the most stressful thing in the world,” Polidore said. “So when you talk to these kids, you have to talk to them with calmness, with grace. You can’t be reactionary immediately. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I think I’m pretty good at that just because I remember how I was as a teenager, and I want them to feel comfortable around me.”

The students certainly seem to feel at ease.

“She’s just such a great person. She has this energy and she brings such a lighthearted, fun aspect to the musical that I think we had lost because of the pandemic,” D’Amore said. “It was nice to have that back and really feel like we have a place, we have a drama club, we can do a show. She has been incredible to bring a new kind of energy to the show.”

Edel said Polidore brings everyone together.
“She is a mom, she’s a sister, she’s a friend. And then again she is a backbone. She is the structure that some of us need in our lives,” Edel said. “We are a family, and she makes it that way.”

Family ties
If the cast, staff and crew feel like a family, that’s partly because many of the people involved have known each other for a very long time. For starters, Polidore’s younger brother graduated from Johnstown just last year, so several cast members are friends with him and used to hang around the Polidore home growing up.

In addition, Polidore has performed with Edel in community theater productions, including as dance partners in a production of Chicago in Northville that Polidore choreographed the summer before the pandemic.

Polidore also used to be D’Amore’s dance teacher, and their families have long gone to the same church.
“We’ve known each other for a really long time, so it was nice to see a friend take over and do something good for the drama club,” D’Amore said.

Polidore also recruited her friends to help with the production, including Michael X. Bevington, a 2015 Johnstown graduate, who is Seussical’s assistant musical director.

Commuting from Glenville, assistant director DeConno may be one of the lone “outsiders” to help with Seussical, but he said he feels like he’s part of the community that Polidore fosters.

“She really gets the students 100% being that this is her hometown,” DeConno said. “What’s wonderful about the Johnstown community is that it really is a giant family.”

Growing together
Like every family, the Seussical cast and crew have had to deal with growing pains.

Directing a show isn’t easy. Directing your first show is even harder.

“You’re organizing everything,” Polidore said. “I created this whole show in my head, and I’m trying to remember what every kid’s doing on stage all at once, and then you bring stage crew into the mix and you have to remember to tell them when they are moving set pieces, where they are moving set pieces, when the curtain has to open and close.”

Making things even more challenging? Many of the student actors have never been in a high school production before because of the pandemic.

DeConno, who has some drama club experience with a previous school district, said he’s been learning as he goes. For instance, during a recent rehearsal he “flew” a set piece on stage for the first time in his life. On show night, he’ll be handling everything from ticket sales to lighting.

“I’ll be a little bit of a madman,” DeConno said.

But he and Polidore say they have developed a good partnership, where Polidore focuses on the creative direction and DeConno takes care of the production side, such as promotion, advertising and budgeting for props and costumes.

Teamwork has been essential, cast members said.

“At the beginning it was rough,” Edel said. “Everyone is mostly new this year. Some have never done a show in their life. We lost a director and we gained a director, but being here a few [rehearsals] away from the show, I can say that was honestly for the better. We’ve progressed a lot.”

Burnett’s legacy
While not belting out the melody, Burnett’s influence on the production is very much a critical piece of harmony. After all, he helped to pick Seussical and cast the show. But deeper than that, students and staff say the former musical director was formative in their lives, helping them build their foundations in theater.

Bevington, the assistant musical director, credits the Johnstown High theater program and Burnett with helping him get accepted to The New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

And Edel says everything he learned about the theater starts with Burnett.

“He was the first person I had ever worked with in theater,” Edel said. “Everything I know on stage–the facial expressions, how loud to be–that all comes from him. It’s very sad to see him go, but he really isn’t gone because of what he has left with people like me.”

So why did Burnett leave the school? When reached by phone at the Northville Public Library, where he is listed as the library director, Burnett politely declined to comment for this article. However, he did want to characterize his departure as a retirement rather than a resignation, saying he was “of that age.”

When asked about Burnett’s departure, Principal Hale said the pandemic has been hard for all of us.

“I think it was definitely a difficult decision for him,” Hale said. “It’s been a tough last two years for everyone in trying to create something and there being so many unknowns.”

Hale said the eleventh-hour shuttering of Rock of Ages hit the entire school district hard and may have been particularly upsetting for Burnett.

Importantly, no one harbors negative feelings toward the former director.

“My message to him was thanking him for the time that he put in for our students,” Hale said. “He was here for quite some time, and I really appreciate all the productions that he put on for our students. You think back, he was very meticulous and very detail-oriented in the shows and productions that he put on. I respect and appreciate all the time that he put in.”

Edel said he has nothing but respect for Burnett.

“I did send him a letter thanking him for all that he has done for me personally. He has taught me so much,” Edel said.

Edel hopes that his former director will be in the Seussical audience.

“I would love to see him.”

‘Who believes in me’
Less than two weeks from opening night, the student actors were still sharpening their choreography, committing lyrics to memory and reworking their blocking. But barring something very unforeseen, the Seussical performances will go on.

That means everything to everyone involved.

“It’s here again. Life is real. Things can change and be good again,” Edel said. “And we seriously couldn’t have done it without Ashley.”

Seussical is a fanciful show that puts famous characters from Dr. Seuss books onstage. Central to the plot is Horton the Elephant’s unwavering faith in an entire community–Whoville–existing on a clover. While Horton is ostracized and dismissed as a lunatic for his beliefs, he remains steadfast.

“I’m alone in the universe, so alone in the universe. I’ve found magic, but they don’t see it,” Horton sings during one number. But “One day soon, I know there you’ll be. One small voice in the universe, one true friend in the universe, who believes in me.”

The students in the production say Polidore demonstrated that belief in them when she took over as director.

“I know that every show, every musical, has a hero, but for this Seussical in particular the hero is Miss Ashley Polidore,” Edel said. “Everyone in this room has a place on their heart with a huge sign that says Ashley Polidore.”

Polidore said on opening night she expects to feel a mix of emotions, punctuated by tremendous pride for the cast.

“I will be crying happy tears because it’s been a really long road for everyone involved in this production. They deserve an opening night to feel proud of,” she said. “I’ll be sad that it’s going to be over soon, but I’ll be really excited about next year.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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