Eerie chills travel up my spine as the crypt door slowly opens. Nevermind that the sound is being made by the creaky handle of a paper cutter. I shiver with the effects of the curse that has haunted the mansion of the Rochambeau family for 90 years!
Set in New Orleans in the 1920s, the October musical “Cursed!” premieres at South Valley Middle School in Gilroy this weekend. The play is an original work written by Gilroy author Linda DeMare and directed by Nicole Ashby and Marisa Visnaw.
As October leaves begin to fall, I feel that familiar thrill that comes with my favorite time of year. This musical has all the necessary elements for kicking off the season in an enjoyably spooky way with a search for a lost tiara, ghosts, a haunted mansion, phrases like “Egads!” a slowly unfolding mystery, and my favorite – dancing zombies. Watching them rehearse this week gave me a peek at the dedication with which these students are preparing for their show and how fun it is going to be.
“This theatre arts program is the very definition of grassroots bootstrapping!” Allen Douglas declared, musical accompanist for the show.
Many of the students in the South Valley program came from elementary schools with vibrantly active theater programs, such as Rucker Elementary School. Parents were shocked to find that there was no similar opportunity at Gilroy middle schools for continuing theater.
Parents decided to step up to keep musical drama and comedy alive, feeling that students get too much out of the experience to let it go by the wayside.
“There are students who are not part of sports or any other group activity who really find their strengths in the theater,” director Nicole Ashby said. “There is something for everyone.”
Douglas said he gets something special out of accompanying various musical programs in the public school system, such as the plays at South Valley.
“The students really change over the course of rehearsing for a play. They begin speaking more clearly. They learn to say what they mean to say. They learn the importance of how you say something, how to project, how to get your listener’s attention, and the importance of body language. They wake up to a sense of self. It’s my favorite thing about this, to see them growing up right before your eyes.”
Douglas credits former Solarsano Middle School principal with giving great support to the effort to keep theater going.
“The support of Mr. Tomasello was invaluable,” Douglas said. “Without it, such a parent-activated theatre program would not be going so strong.”
“We’ve performed original plays at Solarsano for four years and for two years here now,” Ashby said.
“He was the first principal we worked with who had the vision to see how important theater is at the middle school level,” Ashby said. “There was no middle school theater arts program, so we put together a plan. He was willing to take a chance.”
“The current principal at South Valley Middle School, Anisha Munshi, is very supportive of our program and uses her own money to supplement it.”
The show is a real family affair. Choreographer/co-director Marisa Visnaw’s mother writes the plays, while Pete DeMare, her dad, strategically arranges the microphones, oversees sound, and builds anything that is needed.
“He is our go-to problem solver,” Ashby said. “We all could not do these shows without the support of our families. We put so much time into this, and they are so understanding and helpful.”
Ashby and Visnaw do all the stage management together. Douglas’ music draws all the elements of the show together as he uses piano to improvise and fill in with transitions to different activities and scenes on the stage. He provides the electricity that live accompaniment gives a show. This is the fifth show put on by this group that he has accompanied.
“Students learn how to use their energy and focus it in a productive way rather than wiggling all the time,” Douglas described. “They realize that it’s different from watching movies. Now you’re in charge of the show. You have to learn the lines; you have to learn to move. Now you understand the process, what happens behind the scenes, and how much work goes into it. It has a profound effect.
“They even start voluntarily putting down their cell phones. They stop texting.”
“DeMare puts in vocabulary the students have never heard before,” Douglas said. “As well as references to classic movies, and cultural references they won’t know. It’s a great learning experience.”
South Valley Middle School presents 'Cursed' at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 5-6 at the school, 3851 IOOF Ave., Gilroy. There is one matinee performance on Friday, Oct. 5 at 3 p.m. Cost: students $2, general $6.