August 3, 2008
In a New Play, Capturing the Drama of High School Theater
By MARCELLE S. FISCHLER
YEARS ago, Claude Solnik, a journalist and playwright, heard Jeff Bennett, a drama teacher, talk about his textbook “Secondary Stages: Revitalizing High School Theater” (Heinemann, 2001), and was intrigued by what wasn’t in it.
A chapter about an acting exercise in which a student creates “a situation that is make-believe” but that “everyone around them thinks is real” had been cut by an editor, Mr. Solnik recalled.
Mr. Bennett referred to the exercise as “a Beldy,” named after Andy Beldy, one of his students at Shoreham-Wading River High School, where he was a theater and drama teacher from 1978 to 1997. In 1980, the student convinced his classmates that the raging argument he was having with the drama teacher in the classroom was genuine.
It wasn’t, and when the students discovered that, they were “aghast,” Mr. Bennett, 67, recalled. He had not told onlookers that they were watching a performance, he said, and “in that sense I was duping them.”
Mr. Solnik, of Plainview, heard about the missing textbook chapter at a Barnes & Noble reading by Mr. Bennett shortly after the book’s publication and was inspired to write a play, “Theater Games,” loosely based on Mr. Bennett’s 30-year teaching career. While working on the play he attended showcases at the Bare Bones Theater Company, a drama school here that Mr. Bennett founded in 1998. “Theater Games” went through multiple drafts, with Mr. Bennett offering suggestions.
The plot deals with how playacting can degenerate into rumor with devastating repercussions.
“Acting and lying can be the same; the difference is context. When you can’t tell one from the other, you get chaos,” the playwright said. The two-act comedic drama will premiere on Aug. 21, running through Aug. 23 at the Posey School of Dance in Northport, then Sept. 18 to 20 at the Islip Pavilion.
When the manuscript for his book, a manual for high school teachers, was at the publisher, his editor, Lisa Barnett, who died in 2006, cut the section about the Beldy, Mr. Bennett recalled.
“Playing with the trust kids have in their teacher is trickier than Mr. Bennett implies,” an unnamed outside reviewer wrote to Ms. Barnett at the time, taking exception to the Beldy. “I wouldn’t trust kids to be responsible for the emotional lives of their classmates.”
Mr. Bennett had been using the technique with his students. One student “spilled her emotions,” he said, as she talked about her younger brother’s leukemia diagnosis. When the other students empathized, she said: “ ‘Ha, ha. That’s my Beldy.’ They were upset.”
Mr. Bennett admitted that “through the lens of looking back,” the editor “was right.”
At Shoreham-Wading River High School, he was, by his own description, “a controversial figure” who “really pushed the envelope with the kind of material” he did. Previously he worked as an after-school drama coach at Wantagh High School for 12 years.
Parents “would call and complain” about works like “Talk Radio” by Eric Bogosian and pieces by David Mamet “that had real integrity as literature but that might also have been what some would call salacious,” Mr. Bennett said.
Bernard Scherer, a film criticism and journalism teacher at Shoreham-Wading River during Mr. Bennett’s tenure, said that he ran the acting program professionally but “always kind of pushed the limit.”
However, Michael Stegman, an English teacher who worked with Mr. Bennett, added that “because of the way Mr. Bennett trusted kids and the way they trusted him,” students “flocked to the theater program.”
In “Theater Games,” the drama teacher is castigated by the principal for rehearsing a Mamet play full of profanity. But the real drama erupts after a student who is assigned to create a Beldy implies to a friend that she had an affair with the teacher. The rumor eventually costs the teacher his job.
Mr. Bennett noted that the play veers from his own career track. While in “Theater Games” the teacher gets fired, when he retired, the auditorium at Shoreham-Wading River was renamed in his honor.
In the second part of the play, the teacher and the student kiss while rehearsing a scene.
“That never happened,” Mr. Bennett said. “I never did get involved with any of my students.”