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Franklin Tech steps away from musicals

  • A cast photo from Franklin County Tech School's first production, Little Shop of Horrors, in 2013.

  • A scene from Franklin County Tech School's production of 10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse from 2015.

  • A scene from That's Not How I remember it, a Franklin County Tech School production from 2015. Courtesy of Franklin County Tech School.

  • Franklin County Tech students perform in The Brothers Grimm Spectacular in 2014. Photo Courtesy of Franklin County Tech School.



Recorder Staff
Friday, May 19, 2017

In a vocational school, arts are not always the focus. At Franklin County Technical School, days are already packed with traditional subjects and the student’s vocations, and beyond that, many find after school outlets in sports.

Yet, five years after it began, the small but mighty theater program at the school has found a way to make it work.

The program has provided an outlet unlike others, where students who might not normally cross paths become friends.

The program was started in 2012 by science and yearbook teacher Dan Prasol. He did theater when he was in high school at Turners Falls, and he wanted to form a group at the Tech School. So he talked to the school’s music director Dave Maloney about possibly doing a musical, but the two men were on the fence about it. They finally decided to do it.

They worked with Ja’Duke Productions and settled on “Little Shop of Horrors” as their first production.

Prasol quickly learned that musicals were not the way to go, because few kids came out for the show.

“You kind of question whether your program is going to even fly,” he said.

Many kids were worried about singing and hesitant to be involved, so the next year he decided to try a play and held auditions for Brothers Grimm, “Spectaculathon.” The difference in interest was night and day, he said.

The next year they had more than 20 kids come out, instead of the single digit numbers they had for the first play.

That settled it for Prasol.

“We’re not going to be a musical school, we’re going to be a play school,” he said.

Since that time the school has done at least one play every spring, with Prasol trying to pick modern comedies that appeal to a broad range of students, and aren’t necessarily showing at other local high schools.

Titles like “10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse,” “Superheros: With Great Power Comes Ordinary Responsibility,” “10 Worst Break-Ups of All Time,” “That’s Not How I Remember It” and this year’s “Every U.S. Election Ever” show the group does a wide range of topics, but also tries to keep it lighthearted.

The program has some challenges. It doesn’t have a stage or a large practice area, because winter sports occupy the assembly hall and basketball court. So the practice in Prasol’s classroom until the week of the show, which has always been at the Shea, where they then have to learn all staging during several rehearsals.

The play’s also attract students from the winter sports, so a lot of line memorization may be done individually for those not at rehearsals.

The rehearsals are also time-limited. Since the Tech School is for kids throughout the entire county, many students have to catch buses at a certain time to get home, making it harder for the entire cast to come together.

“We don’t really have your conventional drama program, we have a much more arduous process,” he said.

But Prasol has found workarounds for a lot of the problems that have popped up, and never wants to stop a kid from participating if they want to, something he hopes makes the program more inclusive to students.

“I don’t think there’s a single case where there’s been a kid who’s interested, that we haven’t accommodated,” he said.

In its fifth year, the program averages about 20 students per play, and shows no signs of slowing down. Prasol wants to eventually plan an alumni show, that mixes those who’ve graduated with current students, but planning for that is in the early stages.

He said the alumni like to come back for the shows and support the current students and the program, something, he says, shows the impact that theater had on their lives.

Amelia Kendrick, who graduated from the school in 2015, said theater was one of the most important parts of her high school experience. She said before she joined the shows, she was shy, something she isn’t anymore.

Kendrick said Prasol and other teachers encouraged her to try out, which helped her agree to do it and put her at ease. She said the program has had that effect on a lot of her classmates too.

“I feel like it helped a lot of kids,” she said. “A lot of kids come into high school really shy.”

Beyond the public speaking skills and confidence, Kendrick said one of the best experiences is the friends made from across the whole spectrum of the school.

“I think this is one of the best things Tech could have gotten,” she said. “When it comes to tech schools, and schools in general, as loved as it should be, it’s never the most funded, never the most attended. To have this, it gives kids an option. It’s not athletic and it’s not academic, it’s more a way of letting you be yourself.”

Prasol agrees, and said that having an option like this, can bring kids out of their shell.

“It give these kids an opportunity to show a side that they might not be putting out somewhere else,” he said.

The thing that Prasol notices the most after a show is the confidence boost the kids get. He said some aren’t always used to being recognized in a school setting, and this can bring out the best in students. He hears from a lot of juniors and seniors, who finally audition and wish they had done so sooner.

The environment in the program is one of acceptance and inclusiveness above all else.

“It’s okay to be weird when you’re there,” Kendrick said. “It’s okay to be weird and funny.”

Mark Pedercini, who graduated in 2015, feels the same way as Kendrick. He said the friends were the most valuable part of his experience in the program.

“I think it really diversified who I hung out with and gave me a new sense of what I could accomplish,” he said.

Pedercini said he learned accountability and time management, and how to prioritize your time when others are counting on you and there’s a deadline for a show.

Prasol said he once heard from a student who had been an athlete during his time at the school and was then involved in the plays.

“He said, ‘You know, theater kids are the best kids because they don’t care who you are, they just want to put on the best show.’”