“The first bus has arrived,” an organizer at Proctors said Friday morning, about 40 minutes before a production of “The Nutcracker” was set to hit the stage.
A team of staff and volunteers leaped into action. Wearing bright yellow vests and white hats, a group of volunteers — dubbed “the white hats” — waited in the back of the theater, grasped clipboards and waved in school buses as they unloaded students by the hundreds.
Four buses from Yates School in Schenectady. Ten from the Albany School of Humanities.
They kept rolling up. As soon as one dropped off its students and drove away, another filled in right behind.
The students, in lines that moved unevenly toward the main theater, headed with their classes inside Proctors and down the theater’s long main hallway. Once inside, they took their seats and chatted excitedly with classmates.
“It was mad cool,” Yates sixth-grader Marlese Burden said of the last time she saw a Proctors show, “Sister Act.” Her class recently read “The Nutcracker” and Marlese said she was excited to see when Mari “meets her prince.”
Many of the Schenectady students said they had been to shows at Proctors before, and that’s just the way the theater’s CEO Philip Morris wants it. He said about 10 years ago, the theater set a goal that Schenectady students would on average have a chance to see three shows at the historic theater during their public school career.
“We think that is part of any education … arts matter in our lives. They are an opportunity for employment, opportunities for expression, opportunities for conflict resolution,” Morris said, “and to remind every kid this is a piece of being human is the agenda.”
The theater puts on special student shows, which are scheduled during the school day and attract classes from Schenectady, Albany, across the Capital Region and as far away as Montgomery County, Glens Falls and even western Massachusetts, Morris said. The theater’s education team works with teachers and schools to help incorporate literature, stories, music and other elements into classroom curriculum in advance of a show.
So far this year, Proctors has put on productions of “Sleepy Hollow” and “Rudolph” for students. It also has productions scheduled of “Three Little Birds,” “Walk On: The Rosa Parks Story,” “Lady Bug Girl and Bumblebee Boy,” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” and more. The student tickets are deeply discounted, but Proctors also subsidizes tickets and bus travel for schools that couldn’t otherwise afford to make the shows.
The theater spends $2.5 million annually on its much broader education program and around $200,000 on the school day productions, Morris said.
“We basically have a policy of we never say no,” Morris said. “We always try to figure out a way for kids to have an opportunity. … The attitude at the kid level is money isn’t an object.”
Kathryn Sokaris, an English-as-a-new-language teacher at the Albany School of Humanities who organized the school’s Proctors trip Friday, said the support the theater gave to help the school get there was incredible.
The school brought almost every one of its students in class Friday to the show — a group of more than 500 students, teachers and chaperones. Students at the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school learned ballet terms in French class and studied “The Nutcracker” book and the music of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
“The teachers really want to expose the students to the beauty of Proctors … with the scenery and costumes and music,” Sokaris said.
And the Albany students were excited too, especially the handful who scored seats in the front row.
“It’s just like I like it,” said Albany first-grader Journey Wilson of her seat and the show. “And it’s fun and happy.”
Even before the show starts, it’s quite a production getting more than 1,900 students from 30 schools firmly planted in their seats. Teachers led their classes to blocs of seats near the first row, in the balcony and across the large main theater. Once students were seated, teachers did their best to keep them there.
“I kind of have to shoehorn them in their seats,” Proctors Education Program Manager Jessica Gelarden said as the last students made their way to seats Friday morning. “I want them all to have the best seats in the house, but it’s fun. They come in and they are just ecstatic.”
About 10 minutes after 10 a.m., the house manager walked down a wide hallway that leads into the main theater, shutting doors one by one. The lights dimmed, the student chatter gradually subsided and the house music sprung to life. The show was on.