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Seneca Valley middle school theater arts teacher hoping for a 'Smash' hit

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Submitted | Cranberry Journal
Seneca Valley Middle School eighth-graders, from left, Kai Wyskup, Lani Mozzoni, Jake Hecht and Alison Vlasnik, work out a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” Andra Titus’s theater arts students used minimal costumes and props, so they could focus on body positioning and creating a central focal point for each image.

Wanted: Mouse clicks.

From now through April 9, friends of Seneca Valley can register their votes for the district in the “NBC's ‘Smash' Make a Musical Constructed by Lowe's” contest.

The middle school's theater program is among the 30 finalists considered for five grand-prize gift certificates out of 1,800 applicants. The five schools with the most mouse clicks will be the winners.

For Andra Titus, eighth-grade theater arts teacher, a simple snow day proved to be a good one. As she scanned a local news website, checking for delays and closings, she came across the contest while reading the headlines.

When she saw what it took to apply, she filled in the digital form.

“That night was the deadline,” she said. “We lucked into it.”

Having taught for eight years out of a large group instruction room with a center partition, she knew exactly what her students needed: a more professional space for performing.

In her elective class, “we cover improvisation and pantomime,” she said.

“We do a scene study, hold mock auditions, act for the camera, write and record radio commercials, and for one of the semesters, we build the sets for the middle school musical.”

For the final performances, her students perform a series of comedy sketches that run about 45 minutes.

“Ninety percent of the time, the wall is up,” she said, as the other side of her classroom is used for another purpose. “It's discouraging.”

Because of renovations at the middle school building, there is no auditorium.

“But I'm thankful I have a space,” she said, even though there are no curtains, basic track lighting and a plywood platform stage that someone's grandparent built years ago.

“Renovations for the space will give the students the feel of a professional performance,” Titus, 34, of Churchill Borough, said.

That's exactly the goal Timothy Allen McDonald, the founder and chairman of iTheatrics, had in mind when the competition began two years ago. iTheatrics, a New York City-based company, created the “Make A Musical” competition to build sustainable theater programs in under-served schools nationwide. Last year, two area winners were Westinghouse High School and Big Beaver Middle School. To date, the program has revived 101 musical theater programs nationwide.

McDonald first partnered with NBC around its new hit show “Smash,” a show about making musicals. For the next season, Lowe's, a sponsor of “Smash”, came on board to focus on renovations.

“In some schools, theater space hasn't been properly maintained since the '60s or '70s,” he said, explaining that it's common for parents to pitch in and build whatever is needed for their children's theater arts programs. But with the refurbished spaces comes an even more important benefit.

“This is all about raising awareness of the needs of schools,” said McDonald. “This gets the schools, teachers and the communities motivated.”

One of the prizes is a Broadway Junior Show Kit that includes the rights to perform a musical provided by iTheatrics.

“This could be $5,000 for the rights to a show,” Titus said, one that her students could perform. “With better equipment and better supplies, the money could come back to us in another form.”

More theater makes for happier students, as McDonald, 46, knows.

“I was a kid who had a hard time focusing until I found Mrs. Dolores Bowman in music,” he said.

His grades rose from a solid Cs to As.

“Theater gives kids a hook,” he said, now having been engaged in the theater professionally for 29 years.

Titus is looking forward to seeing the vote total rise. She's familiar with NBC's “Smash,” airing Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.

“I watched several episodes, and I like it. But with a new baby, I'm DVR-ing it. I'm in bed before it's on.”

To vote, visit the Seneca Valley School District website and select 78 Middle School, and click on “Smash: Make a Musical.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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