School plays survive cuts, controversy

Curtains soon will be pulled back for high school productions of "Rent" and "Alice in Wonderland," but this year's backstage drama rivals what will happen onstage.

Henderson parents tried to get a court order to stop Green Valley High School's performance of "Rent" because of controversy over its content, which includes homosexual and drug-using characters.

Much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the cast of "Alice in Wonderland" at Durango High School fell down the hole created by the Clark County School District's budgetary shortfalls.

Last spring, Durango students were told that drama classes were being cut because of lack of funding. Students were promised they could still do plays as an extracurricular activity. But this school year, the students lost the drama club faculty adviser because Durango's enrollment did not meet projections.

After staffing adjustments, Amy Jensen, Durango's former drama club adviser, became a guidance counselor at Western High School. Last week, her name was still posted on a bulletin board outside the Durango theater.

The "Alice in Wonderland" cast can relate to the confusion of the title character, as performed by senior Alyse Kurley. In the play, the 17-year-old playing Alice says, "I notice everyone appears and disappears suddenly around here."

After Jensen's departure, English teacher Kelly Pitacciato took over as Durango's drama club adviser.

Without regular drama classes, Josh Nadler, 17, said Durango students felt the full burden of putting on a play.

"It's probably been one of the most stressful experiences of my life," said Nadler, who worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a Saturday to finish building the set.

Before the cuts, a set design class might have built the props and scenery for the school play, said Gary Sessa, a full-time English teacher and drama club adviser at Bonanza High School who also acts as the district's part-time theater and dance coordinator.

"The frustration is definitely there," Sessa said. "I joked at the performance (of "The Diary of Anne Frank") that we were painting up until five minutes before the show started."

Drama also was cut at Bonanza and Spring Valley high schools. It was drastically reduced at high schools such as Palo Verde, which had four drama teachers a year ago but only has one drama teacher this year, said Sessa, who last year had a full-time job overseeing the district's drama program until the position was eliminated in budget cuts.

Even though the district had to absorb about $120 million in cuts this year, Sessa said all district high schools are performing at least one school play.

Sessa said the drama cuts have been especially difficult for principals. "If you look at Bart Mangino at Bonanza, Bob Gerye at Spring Valley or Mark Gums at Durango, it really hurt them that they had to cut these art programs."

Nadler said Gums supported their Thespian Club with a $1,500 budget for "Alice." Pitacciato said students are making the best of what they have.

The controversy over "Rent" seems to have died down at Green Valley High School, said Sarah Balogh, 17, who plays the character Maureen.

Once parents failed to win the court order, students were relieved that they could focus on doing the best play possible, Balogh said.

Some parents had argued that "Rent" was unacceptable because the play was rated R, but officials with Music Theatre International, which leases the script for "Rent," said the school edition was toned down for a PG-13 rating, according to e-mails obtained by the Review-Journal.

A district spokesman said parents had e-mailed Green Valley Principal Jeff Horn 20-to-1 in support of "Rent."

The district declined to release those e-mails as part of a Review-Journal public records request.

The district's legal staff said e-mails from the public about a school play are not public records.

In any event, the controversy surrounding the play has generated buzz for "Rent," Balogh said. She's excited people want to see it.

"It's very cool," Balogh said.

Contact reporter James Haug at or 702-374-7917.