Over a decade’s worth of show posters hang on the wall behind theater director Brian Cappello’s desk. One of them is “Shrek: the Musical,” last year’s winter musical.
“Shrek” sticks out in Cappello’s mind because of its spectacle, and its price. Upwards of 50 cast members and handmade costumes, homemade set pieces on top of the $3,000 royalty fee to the company that owns the musical’s copyright and the cost of renting professional backdrops. According to Cappello, these behind-the-scenes expenditures are what gave the show its unforgettable scope.
Now, he’s not sure how much longer the theater department will be able to take on shows like “Shrek.” He looks ahead and sees theater’s operating budget dwindle, leaving less money to costume the cast, create sets, even buy shows. He worries for his students, whom he knows thrive on the hands-on experience of producing theater, instead of studying theory.
“[Budget cuts] may not affect what we do itself,” Cappello said. “But I could see it affecting the quality of what we do.”
Senior Becca Zeiger student directed “Shrek” and attributes its success in part to its professional-grade scale, seen where there were props and set components which demanded something beyond what the students could make in-house.
“We do our own shows, we make our own costumes, but some things are harder to find,” Zeiger said. “Things like that are better rented and that’s going to be more expensive.”
For example, Princess Fiona’s specific red-haired wigs were rented for three different actresses. Dragon’s character was operated by two people — senior Abby Cramer at the mouthpiece and senior Alex Lang operating the body of the fully-mobile dragon and rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
From Zeiger’s perspective backstage, “Shrek,” a show that filled the Dan Zollars Auditorium four times over its three-day run, couldn’t have come to life the same way without its expansive visuals.
“We want to put on the most professional show as possible and I think when you start cutting corners the show suffers,” Zeiger said. “It’s not very fair because the cast and crew put in so much work, we’re just asking for the same effort and time from the state.”
Even so, Cappello knows the theater department would survive without the funds, but in a different way. Towards the end of each year, when he chooses the shows that East will put on for the next year, there will be more considerations to make. The considerations could include how it’s cheaper to costume 30 cast members than 40, and how shows with bigger names demand more royalty checks.
It’s a new reality which will find its way into the theater department’s classrooms as well.
“[Technical director Thomas] DeFeo and I know a lot of stuff, we’re teachers. You take away everything we have, we can still teach the concepts,” Cappello said. “But it’s hard to teach the concept of a light board if you can’t afford a decent light board.”
In the introductory theater class, Drama, Cappello teaches students learn how to make a character come to life with no costume, no makeup, no lighting. Then, all of the technical aspects add to the character and create the world of a performing art piece. Without that world, though, Cappello says he’s left teaching only theory.
“The Greeks did theater without any sets at all,” Cappello said. “So it can be done. But there is a certain quality we want.”
He says that East has developed a reputation for its strong theater program. To him, that expectation comes from the excitement his students feel when taking on a new challenge.
“We have built certain expectations within our department and within the community,” Cappello said. “When you say East theater, you think huge. You think quality, you think really good stuff.”
Cappello loves watching the audience’s reactions to his students’ performances, and says he would go to his grave saying that his are the most talented students in the district. That’s why he resents the budget battle, which may force the department’s attitudes to shift from pushing boundaries to adapting to them.
“I don’t want to watch the kids suffer because someone in Topeka has cut the money,” Cappello said.