Second Act

A new principal and a bevy of theater pros are trying to help the Duke Ellington School of the Arts revive its reputation. First hurdle? An ambitious production of "The Wiz."
By Robin Rose Parker
Sunday, April 13, 2008

CLUSTERED TOGETHER IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GYM, the principal cast members of "The Wiz" are sitting in chairs rehearsing their lines. Their director, Lynda Gravátt, a veteran actress of stage and television, as well as a former teacher at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, takes a moment between scenes to talk about what is scheduled for the days and weeks to come. This rehearsal will be one of the last conducted in the gymnasium. The theater upstairs, which is undergoing some unexpected repairs, will finally be ready for the cast and the crew to begin the last stages of their preparations. That period will focus on the technical aspects of the performance, such as lighting and sound. And no one is more eager for the move than Gravátt.

"I really feel that you all are ready to get into the theater," she says, sliding her glasses from the end of her nose into her dark brown hair. "You all have to stay focused when we get into tech. When we get upstairs, I want you to all be so fierce and so focused that, if anything goes wrong, it won't have anything to do with you."

Sitting at the director's table with the other adult members of the creative team, Gravátt considers the students in front of her. "I know that you're all tired," she says. "I want you to rest when you're not rehearsing. Crash out whenever you can."

It is the end of a long week at Duke Ellington. In less than two weeks, these students will take the stage in what may be the biggest production in Ellington school history. It will involve nearly 200 students from all eight of the arts disciplines: theater (acting), technical theater, dance, vocal music, instrumental music, visual arts, museum studies and literary media.

Head of School Rory Pullens came up with the idea of putting on a show that would reestablish Duke Ellington as one of the premiere arts education institutions in the country. Convinced that no ordinary production would suffice, Pullens and his team hired 42 theater professionals who agreed to work for a fraction of what they would typically be paid. Gravátt, who has served as a visiting director for Ellington's shows in the past, was the first onboard, and it is her vision that the rest of the artists are striving to realize.

Gravátt's reluctance to choose among the large numbers of students who showed up to audition led, at least in part, to her decision to have two casts that could perform on alternating days. There was also a practical reason: 12 shows over nine days. That schedule seemed a tall order for the students unaccustomed to the vocal requirements of daily performance.

Satisfied for the moment with the progress of this particular cast, Gravátt and her team step out into the cold January air to take a break.

Both casts want to perform on opening night, closing night and the night of the Cappies (Critics and Awards Program) review, which is when other high school students critique and potentially nominate the show and its performers for "Oscar-like" awards. The murmurs of their discontent have reached the ears of the director, and, as Gravátt walks purposefully to her chair and reconvenes the rehearsal, it is apparent to all that she is displeased. "Let's be clear about what is really important," she begins. "We are all in support of whoever is on. Nothing is in stone. You can be replaced, because, guess what? I'm the director." The silence in the room is broken only by the hissing of the antiquated radiators.

"If you don't know who I am, go home to your computers and Google me," she says. "I lost a Broadway job today because of you. Because I left a job to come down here. It is a sacrifice I have made." Some of the students appear chastened, while others avoid her unflinching gaze.

"This school began as a workshop -- Workshops for Careers in the Arts," Gravátt says. "Careers. That doesn't mean you'll be famous, but it means you will be able to pay your rent."

RORY PULLENS KNEW HE WAS DREAMING BIG. He was betting that his high-end production of "The Wiz" would fill the 839-seat theater each night and draw the interest of top-tier corporations to consider underwriting future productions. This was just the kind of vision that Duke Ellington's governing board was looking for when it hired him two years ago. The duties of the head of school go beyond those of a typical public school principal; in addition to being the dean of arts and the head of academics, he would have to help raise funds for the school.

When Pullens, 50, was asked to interview for the top spot, he was more than a little surprised. He was happily ensconced at the Denver School of the Arts. But he was intrigued by the reputation of the Ellington school and wanted to keep his interviewing skills sharp, so he responded to the call.

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