STC’s Matilda: Behind-the-Scenes

The planning and background of the STC Matilda performance.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Zoe Buff

Every fall, the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC) recreates a Broadway musical. This musical offers students the opportunity to engage in their artistic interests early in the school year, with roles both on stage and behind the scenes. The choice for this year’s production was Matilda.

Though Matilda was performed in late October this year, planning for the show began far in advance, starting in June of the last school year. “[Planning started] at the end of last school semester. Once I found out, I was already thinking of show names. We have to start licensing [early] because licensing takes about a month to get back to you. And we don't have that type of time [during the school year],” junior and STC executive producer Vanessa Chen said. Licensing is required when schools perform musicals that are not their original work due to copyright reasons.

As executive producer, Chen chose which musical STC would perform and took into consideration how the pandemic had impacted turnout and student involvement when making the decision. “When I was coming up with the show, I really wanted to prioritize reviving STC. I think especially after COVID and online STC, [it] just did not feel the same. [STC] wasn’t the same community,” Chen said. “I wanted a lot of young people to join, so I thought Matilda was the perfect show because Matilda [for] one is really well known.”

Once the musical was decided upon, further preparations began, which included holding auditions for the show. “We had so many people auditioning for this show. I think it’s actually the most competitive one I’ve directed. We held three days of auditions and had over 50 people come in for auditions,” junior and STC cast director August Petry said.

The cast auditions were not the only sector of STC in which participation was high; the art crew also experienced a revival in dedicated members this year. “We had a lot of our crew actually come this time. They were really helpful. A lot of the time, half our crew is missing so it would be kind of stressful,” senior and art director Bowen Fu said.

Underclassman involvement was particularly high this year, which was not the norm for some STC crews previously. “This was a really underclassman-heavy show - there were so many amazing underclassmen,” senior and band music director Katherine Zhao said. “Maybe it’s because this musical was going to ask for underclassmen because it’s Matilda, [which] is very much geared towards younger kids. But, usually for a lot of the STC shows, there wouldn’t be as many underclassmen.”

Auditions began in September and spanned the course of three days. For the auditions, potential cast members were asked to prepare a song and perform a monologue that was handed out on the day of the audition. “I originally had planned to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ but then right before we went to the audition room, I decided to sing ‘Part of Your World’ from the Little Mermaid,” freshmen and Matilda lead actress Jane No said. “I don’t remember all of [the monologues], but the one that I did was about shrimp fried rice.”

After initial auditions, potential cast members participated in a day of callbacks in which they were split into groups to perform scenes from Matilda. From this, the cast was formed and rehearsals began. “We’ve had rehearsals essentially every [...] school day after school since we got the cast. Over the past few years, I have figured out how to make sure that the cast is prepared. Within the rehearsals, the cast will learn their music, they’ll learn their dances with the music directors and dance directors,” Petry said.

During rehearsals, cast directors would work with the actors on character building and memorization. “With us, we go over the scenes, do character work with their chemistry, and essentially make sure that they know exactly what they’re supposed to do in every single scene. And they’re comfortable in their characters, and just confident in what they’re doing so the cast is fully memorized, fully prepared,” Petry said. “I do this fun little thing where I tell them that since I don't have a curfew, I will stay after school until they’re memorized on memorization day.”

The long rehearsals sometimes made it difficult for cast members to balance the time commitments of STC and schoolwork. However, members eventually became better at managing the two and supporting each other along the way. “As we got closer to the show, rehearsals got longer, and I was getting home later, which did make managing schoolwork kind of difficult, but I think it went fine,” No said. “I love that everybody supports each other so much, and even if we mess up no one’s like angry or anything. We all just care about each other, and being Stuy students as well we all know what we’re all going through with academics and stuff, and how that’s difficult.”

Upperclassmen generally found it easier to manage school work alongside preparations for the musical after having participated in STC for a number of years. “At the beginning, it’s kind of hard to realize, ‘Oh my god, when I get out of here it’s going to be dark outside,’ but I think you get adjusted to it,” Zhao said.

Though no longer in the heat of the pandemic, the cast was able to adapt to occasional COVID-related absences. “I also was in quarantine for a week which kind of set me back. But, I did do video calls with some of the directors during rehearsal and that helped me stay on track of [preparing for Matilda],” No said.

For the show, the band needed to rework some of the official Broadway musical numbers to better suit the instruments they had. “The instruments that the musical’s originally written for included some instruments we don’t have, like trombone and bass clarinet. That was what the pieces were orchestrated for. But the band we did have included saxophones, flutes, trumpet, drums, guitar, bass, a bunch of keyboards, [...] and cellos of course. So, we rewrote some of the instruments that were originally for clarinet or trumpet to fit [the] instruments that we do have,” Zhao said.

The band played 13 musical numbers live, while 11 of the numbers were performed with recorded tracks. “Numbers that were most feasible to play live [were less than] 10 minutes long, because the opening number is 10 minutes long and it took us two days just to get through the first two pages [...] so we just decided to cut that and instead spend our time focusing on smaller numbers that would definitely be more feasible live because it simply wasn’t going to work,” Zhao said. “I would really have loved if we played more of our pieces live because our band has that capability to play these pieces, it’s just there simply wasn’t enough time.”

Overall, time constraints were a difficulty crews faced while preparing for the musical. “It was really only, like, three full weeks of rehearsals, so it was pretty challenging because obviously it’s just time constraint, and it’s also pretty dance heavy too, and it’s pretty big too in terms of an ensemble because we had our own dance crew this year, which we didn’t have before. So, it was pretty difficult to get everything coordinated on time.” Zhao said.

However, the crews were able to stay on top of what needed to be done. “It was a very short amount of time to paint a lot, but I think we still managed to finish everything on time, and it was really fun as well,” Fu said.

Additionally, some challenges with communication arose between different crews. One main issue of miscommunication involved packages that STC ordered. “[We] order most of our stuff from Amazon, but when it gets here, [since] different crews order different things, [...] Ms. Maggio or Vanessa or whoever is producing the show doesn’t really have a clear idea of what that thing is or who it belongs to,” senior and technical coordinator Ziying Jian said.

Oftentimes, packages will move from crew to crew, eventually getting lost. “For lights and sound, I had to order some rechargeable batteries and some double A batteries for them, but one of the packages ended up being lost. [...] No one really knew who it was for, so they gave it to different crews and it ended up being lost,” Jian said. “For next shows, I would try to make sure all the packages are delivered to the right crews.”

Many of the miscommunication issues of last year’s performances were nonetheless fixed for this year’s show. “[Theodore Yochum and I] worked with mainly technical crews for the past three years in STC, and we noticed that there were some changes that could’ve been made,” Jian said. “In the previous years there [were] always problems between tech and art, just having miscommunication issues and not being able to coordinate their work on time, so [...] when the sets were done, art wasn’t notified. So, it was small communication issues like that that just stopped the process from being as efficient as it could’ve been.”

The technical coordinators tackled the miscommunication issues by creating spreadsheets for the crews to use. They express that this solution effectively streamlined coordination between crews. “This was the smoothest show by far. We had a spreadsheet with all the different set pieces, all the different props, and we had little checkmarks for every single crew. So, every time one crew finished something and needed it to be passed on, they would just check it off and then I would be able to see which set pieces needed to be finished, which set pieces were done, and what we needed to work on,” Fu said.

STC members have shared their anticipation for future shows. “I think STC is in great hands for next year. I am so genuinely excited to see all the underclassmen take on more stuff,” Zhao said.

All in all, despite a few roadblocks along the way, STC expressed satisfaction with the work they were able to accomplish with Matilda, selling around 600 tickets for the musical. “The most exciting part is seeing everything come to life because I chose Matilda. This was the show I knew I wanted to do,” Chen said.