Andra Stefanoni: Performing arts students make community proud at state conference

Cast, musicians, crew, teachers and the high school principal join in a backstage tradition called "circle time" before performing "Band Geeks" to a crowd of 2,000 at the State Thespian Conference in Wichita on Thursday night. Courtesy photo

PITTSBURG, Kan. — As I stood at the edge of Fourth Street last Wednesday, cellphone in hand ready to record video of the departure of almost 70 students from Pittsburg High School, I spotted the lights and heard the sirens of police vehicles. Tears welled up.

They were tears of pride and joy.

The police vehicles were escorting a motorcade of PHS performing arts students (theater, band and vocal music), a handful of adult chaperones, and theater instructor Greg Shaw, band director Cooper Neil and vocal music teacher Susan Laushman out of town.

They were going to state.

It’s the kind of scene I’ve witnessed several times in Pittsburg, where championship football teams make the entire community proud. We root along with them to victory.

But this was a bit different. These were “Band Geeks.” Literally. They were cast, crew and pit musicians of a musical by that name, performed last fall at PHS and chosen by adjudicators to be one of five high school shows to qualify for the Kansas State Thespian Conference in Wichita.

Ironically, the compelling storyline is woven around a school band and director that don’t get much community or financial support. They make do with old uniforms, leaky ceiling tiles, no practice space and ridicule by athletes and the popular kids.

The show is poignant in telling the side stories of the students in the band and their struggles and dreams. I was one of those PHS band geeks from 1984 to 1988. But these days at PHS, where my son is a freshman band and theater geek, it’s different. The performing arts program has grown exponentially and has tremendous community support. Businesses offer sponsorships. Booster groups hold fundraisers. And geeks are cool.

On a broader scale, it’s a piece of the economic and quality-of-life puzzle that fits with the success of Pittsburg Community Theatre at Memorial Auditorium, of Pittsburg State University students and staff at the Bicknell Center for the Performing Arts, and at local venues with bands and poetry readings.

After Thursday night’s performance at the Expo Center in Wichita, the whole state now knows about performing arts in Pittsburg. It was the largest audience in conference history: 1,600 registered attendees plus several hundred parents and guests.

PHS earned a lengthy standing ovation.

Mothers of performers who attended as chaperones provided updates on social media with video clips, photos and updates, engaging the community to make us feel as if we were right there with them.

Afterward, it was difficult for parents to articulate the kind of impact the experience had on their sons and daughters, several of whom plan to pursue performing arts in college and perhaps, in some form, as a career. Many of these students also were selected in recent weeks for state choir and state band.

Senior Jack Warring, who played a lead role, won a $1,000 college scholarship and received 21 college audition call-backs. Junior Coral VanBecelaere was named one of five officers for the statewide organization — the first from Pittsburg to ever have the honor.

And judges named PHS a Gold Troupe — the highest honor — for its body of work for the past year, which includes hours of service to the community.

In a few weeks, judges will announce whether PHS will get to take “Band Geeks” to the International Thespian Conference in June. Shaw says fewer than 10 high schools in Kansas have ever had that opportunity. If Pittsburg is chosen, fundraising will begin again; students pay their own way to such conferences with the help of Friends of PHS Performing Arts.

Should that happen, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see more community support, another police escort out of town and hundreds following along on Facebook. As several noted upon PHS’s return, it takes a village. And what a village this is.

 

Andra Bryan Stefanoni, a former Globe reporter, now works as a freelancer. She lives in Pittsburg, Kan. 

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Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a staff writer for The Joplin Globe. She has been a reporter and editor at The Pittsburg Morning Sun and the former Girard Press, has written for state and national magazines, and has taught journalism.