Connie Johnson and Isaias Ramirez, students at Skyline High School in Oakland, were both musicians. Now, they’re actors, too. “It’s like a dream come true,” says Johnson about being cast as one of the band members in “School of Rock,” a musical by the Spindrift School of Performing Arts that opens next week.
The play, which was adapted from the movie starring Jack Black, is about a rock ‘n’ roller masquerading as a teacher who forms a renegade band with his uptight prep-school students. Johnson plays a guitarist in the band, and Ramirez is the drummer.
“It’s my two favorite things together,” said Johnson about performing as both an actor and a musician. “It’s so much fun!”
The play puts more emphasis on the student characters than the movie did, which gives the young actors good parts to portray. Kaylee Harris, who has sung and acted with Spindrift for 10 years, says that becoming a different person and immersing herself in a role is one of the things she loves about acting. The characters in the expensive private school allow the actors a view into a different world. The wealth, the prim behavior and the clothes of the characters were “kind of jarring at first,” said Ramirez. “I’ve never worn a tie to school before.”
The play is directed by Gary Ferguson, the new executive artistic director at Spindrift. Ferguson has been at the school for less than a year, and in that time has overseen 13 student productions. This is the most ambitious yet. The choice to do “School of Rock” seemed natural to him, given that the performing arts school teaches music and dance as well as acting, and has multitalented students.
He was also able to draw on the Spindrift Theater next door for adult actors, since the play involves both. Working with a range of ages is challenging, from the logistics of when to practice to the differences in how to direct. Ferguson set up a staggered practice schedule: The youth come once a week after school; the adults rehearse in the evening when they’re home from work. The two groups overlap for an hour and a half joint session.
“When the kids go home at 7:30 and he’s working with us, I see him switch. With the adults, he’s still the director, but he talks to us more as colleagues,” said Rosie Bromann, one of the adult actors. As a teacher — and as a mother of another cast member — she’s attuned to how people work with kids. With both groups, she said, “he brings the energy he wants us to match.”
“He’s super funny,” said Bromann’s son, Aiden Schmitt, who plays the band’s techie. When he came to audition for the play, Ferguson also recruited his mother.
Having a mixed-age cast “follows my passion for cradle-to-grave creativity,” said Ferguson. At Spindrift, he teaches adult classes as well as younger students, and he frequently sees people who grew up at Spindrift returning to the stage later in life.
Musical director Adam Green, who teaches music at Skyline High School in Oakland, recruited many of the actor-musicians from among his students. The music in the show will be live, not recorded. A pit band will provide the interlude music. And when the band rocks out, the young actors and the adult lead will actually be playing their instruments.
With its live music and “roof-raising energy,” the show demands a larger stage than Spindrift’s previous productions. Ferguson, who also teaches at Skyline Community College, arranged for the musical to play at the college theater. “School of Rock” will run for seven shows, May 23-28. Tickets are available at the Spindrift website, spindriftschool.org/tickets.
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