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WORKING THROUGH RED TAPE: 51-year-old ‘Up the Down Staircase’ mirrors current education crisis

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Part of the appeal of “Up the Down Staircase” is its comedic approach. Despite being heavy content, it’s handled lightly and contains an inspiring message.

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Seven years ago Penny Kohut upstarted Bare Bones Productions in New England, where she then lived, as a creative outlet for students to learn about Shakespeare. They’d choose a work to study, learn and then perform for the public. When she moved south, Bare Bones came with her. Since being in Wilmington, she has expanded the program to include adults.

“Two years ago we performed ‘MacDeath’ at Old Books on Front Street,” Kohut tells. “Last October we performed it again at all four libraries, and this past June we performed a version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the library.”

In fact, Kohut has been quite busy making strides on the local theatre scene since her arrival. Aside from acting in numerous productions—including the St. Patrick’s Day shows at TheatreNOW and City Stage Co.’s holiday production of “A Christmas Story” last year—Kohut entered Big Dawg Productions’ play festival in May 2014.

“Entrants were given a list of criteria and 24 hours to write and perform an original 15-minute one-act play,” she says. “The prize was the use of [Big Dawg’s] Cape Fear Playhouse for two consecutive weekends. Long story short, a year and a half later, here we are!”

This weekend Bare Bones will be stepping away from Shakespeare and entering into the world of the Bel Kaufman adaptation, “Up the Down Staircase” (a 1964 New York Times bestseller and 1967 award-winning movie, starring Sandy Dennis). The show follows a story we’re all too familiar with, especially in today’s shaky political climate concerning education in NC. Even though the book was written 51 years ago, it’s eerily relevant.

“Parents, students and teachers can all relate to the effect budget cuts and excessive layers of bureaucracy have on our school system,” Kohut says. “It’s sad, but this story still rings true today.”

It’s a funny, yet reverent tale about a committed, if not idealistic, English teacher, Sylvia Barrett. Barrett works in an inner-city school with less-than motivated students. Though she tires of having to work through the red tape, Barrett wants to inspire her students’ interest in classic literature and in writing.

“She quickly becomes discouraged and  frustrated by bureaucracy, the indifference of her students, and the incompetence of many of her colleagues,” Kohut explains. “The title is taken from a memo that informs her a student was being punished for going ‘up the down staircase.’ She decides to leave the public school system to work in a smaller private-school setting, but changes her mind when she realizes she has touched the lives of her students after all.”

The play, which is usually performed in high schools, rarely makes its way to community theatre. First off, its cast is overwhelming: 19 students and nine faculty roles must be filled. Kohut has intertwined amateur and veteran actors in the show.

“The experienced adult cast members are Dori Schoonmaker, Stuart Pike, Linsey McGrath, Stephen Raeburn, Emily Graham, and Laurene Perry,” she tells. “Some with less experience are my husband Steve Kohut (who is forced to perform occasionally in a pinch when I am short an actor!), Susanne Medlock and a first-time performer Michael O’Connell, who does the props for most of the Thalian Association shows. I talked him into playing the school librarian because I thought he would be hilarious, and it would be a perfect chance for him to try being on the other side of the curtain.”

Schoonmaker will play Sylvia, while Lindsey McGrath will take on a more seasoned teacher, Bea. Kohut approached each actress to take on their roles; however, the other parts were cast from auditions.

“I thought it was a perfect show to give students who don’t sing and dance a chance to play good characters and also give adults an opportunity to perform cameo roles with minimal rehearsals,” Kohut says. “It’s a great ensemble play but has its challenges since there are so many cast members.”

Part of the appeal of the material is its comedic approach. Despite being heavy content, it’s handled lightly and contains an inspiring message—one local teachers and school administration could definitely use as of late. “I didn’t specifically choose to do a comedy,” Kohut clarifies. “I chose this because it is relatable and has a lot of roles for adults and students. It’s billed as a comedy, but there are some very touching and bittersweet moments in it, too.”

Kohut and her theater team—including Stephen Raeburn and Steve Kohut as set designers/builders, Mavis Schlichtmann as production manager, Susanne Medlock as costume coordinator, Laura Brogden Primaveraas stage manager, Savannah Dougherty as assistant stage manager and Nickolas Fenner as lighting designer—are transforming Cape Fear Playhouse for its Friday opening. It will showcase a basic classroom setup with no set changes are required. “We had to be simplistic with the design, because we have a limited budget (zero!),” Kohut tells. “But Steve Vernon and everyone at Big Dawg have been very helpful. In fact, this truly is a ‘community’ theater production since so many theater companies, namely Big Dawg, Thalian Association and City Stage Co., have stepped up to help out with rehearsal space, props and set pieces.”

Up the Down Staircase
November 6-8, 13-15, 7:30 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $10 • (910) 518-0542

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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