On recent evenings in Mount Joy, a high school English teacher sings about Cinderella’s desire to go to a royal festival.
A chemistry teacher prepares to become her prince.
A former field hockey coach, transformed into a big bad wolf, sits on her long gray tail and practices part of a song.
And a recently retired principal waits to embrace his identity as a Mysterious Man.
The faculty and staff of Donegal School District are going “Into the Woods” on the stage of Donegal High School this week, and plan to take a big community audience along — for a good cause.
Schoolteachers, staff members and volunteers have given up several weeks of their summer to rehearse the Stephen Sondheim musical. They’ll perform it three times to entertain the public (and their students) and raise money for college scholarships.
“A lot of them finished teaching at 3:45, ran home to get something to eat to be here by 5 o’clock for rehearsal,” says Donegal High School gifted teacher Susan Heydt, who is doing publicity for the show.
Staff members from the district’s various schools started rehearsing through the summer and performing an annual musical 20 years ago.
“It all started with ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ ” says John Felix, who recently retired after a 40-year career as a teacher, coach and Donegal High School principal. “They needed guys,” so he joined the cast.
He performed in a few more annual fall staff shows after that, including “Grease” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I was a football and wrestling coach,” Felix says. “When I became a principal, I knew athletics, but I had to learn the other parts, like the performing arts. ... When I came to understand the level of dedication and commitment and hard work it takes to put on a show (I saw) it’s no different than putting a team on the field.”
The staff musical tradition went by the wayside in the early 2000s, to be resurrected two years ago when faculty and staff portrayed teenagers in “High School Musical.”
English teacher Audra Brackbill, who also directs the plays and musicals at Donegal High School, is credited with reviving the staff show.
She portrays Cinderella in “Into the Woods.”
Brackbill says she’s performing in the staff show “for the kids and the camaraderie.”
Proceeds from the three performances will fund a scholarship “for a senior who is going into the arts — either visual, performing or music,” Brackbill says. “We were able to award the last two recipients $3,000 each (in college scholarship money).”
“Into the Woods,” in which the audience learns the sometimes dark fates of a variety of classic fairy tale characters — after they think they’ve gotten their happily-ever-after ending — “is a complicated show,” Brackbill adds. “It’s a thinking show. Sondheim just layers and layers and layers meaning into the script.”
Newbies and veterans
Some faculty and staff members in the production have lots of theater experience, while some either have never performed in theater or haven’t since they were kids.
The Boston Conservatory-trained Michelina McGrady, who portrays the witch in “Into the Woods,” choreographs for the performing arts at the high school, and has choreographed the faculty musical as well.
Steve Sturgis, a retired engineer who has been substitute-teaching and volunteering in junior high math classes in the Donegal district, sits stage right, serving as The Narrator of “Into the Woods.” Sturgis also performs in shows at Susquehanna Stage in Marietta.
“The chance to work with and get to know the other teachers in the district is well worth the time and the adventure,” Sturgis says.
“The folks that are here are teaching and then coming in and doing rehearsals and investing their energy,” Sturgis says. “They’re committed to this show and to their students.”
“This is the first musical I’ve ever done,” says Seth Dougherty, a high school chemistry teacher and science department chair who plays Cinderella’s Prince in the show. “I did a couple of plays in college.”
He thinks his students who will come to see him in the show “are going to be a little shocked,” Dougherty says. “Most of them would not think I would do anything like this. I’m known as the monotone teacher. So singing and dancing is not in my normal repertoire.”
“This is my first time,” says fifth grade teacher Rachel Bailey, who plays the Baker’s Wife. “I really love musicals and Broadway, and I never did a show in high school. And so I kind of felt, this is my chance to do this and have fun with it as an adult.”
Her baker husband in the show, fourth grade teacher Rodney Hess, was drawn into the staff show two years ago with “High School Musical.”
“The thought of adult teachers running around on stage, playing high school students, just seemed funny to me,” he says. “It was a great way that summer to connect with colleagues (from other Donegal school buildings) I generally don’t get to see and interact with. And so, when the opportunity came up to do it again, I was ready to go.”
Lauren Pogue, a Donegal fourth-grade teacher, used to coach field hockey as an assistant to Jess Shellenberger — who recently started a new teaching job at Manheim Township High School.
“Lauren is my best friend in the whole world,” Shellenberger says. But that will be put aside on stage when Shellenberger portrays The Wolf and Pogue is her potential dinner, Little Red Riding Hood.
“She sniffs me and stuff,” Pogue says. “It’s really cool that we get to do this together.”
The pit orchestra for the show is made up of local volunteers.
High school students are volunteering on the production team.
The prize for the longest commute to rehearsals has to go to “Into the Woods” director Chris Ondeck, who jumps in his car after teaching at Yellow Breeches Educational Center in Carlisle and drives to Mount Joy.
“I’m basically living in my car,” says Ondeck, who is friends with a Donegal teacher who drafted him to play Chad in “High School Musical” two years ago.
“It got me back into doing theater as an adult,” says Ondeck, who performed in plays and musicals when he was a student at Warwick High School in Lititz. “Now I act professionally with Gamut Theatre (Group) in Harrisburg, Ondeck says.
When Brackbill said she wanted to perform in this year’s show, Ondeck was eager to direct.
“I love the story of ‘Into the Woods,’ and I thought ... let’s have some fun with it. Let’s try a big old Sondheim show and see what we can make out of it,” Ondeck says. “And the teachers — everyone involved with the production — have been absolutely incredible. Everyone is really taking it seriously, and it’s been a lot of fun.”