By Michall Jeffers
Look closely at the lively theatre scene in our community. In every group, you’ll find shining stars making everything possible.
“I love working with kids!”- John Fanelli’s enthusiasm is catching. He’s more than just the Founder and Artistic Director of Standing Ovation Studios; he’s a man on a mission. “We change lives one show at a time. What we do is all about building self-confidence. We are proud to be Educational Theatre.” While John’s programs are filled with talented youngsters, his goal isn’t to groom future Broadway stars, but rather to teach kids. He tells them, “Trust your talent. You don’t have to be great at singing, dancing, or acting.” And he adds, “Everyone is welcomed with open arms; we insist on it.” But for those who are thinking of a career in theatre, this is also the place to hone the necessary skills. Fanelli provides practical guidance; an audition workshop is vital to learning the business of acting. Another benefit to students is John’s knowledge of what’s going on in New York theatre. He recommends shows on- and Off-Broadway, urging students to see professional theatre work at its finest.
Theatre is a family affair for the Fanellis. Wife Nannette is Executive Producer; kids Jackson, 16, Ryan, 14, and Grace, 9, are all involved. John understands the pressure to get into the right school, and has become an expert at recommending “theatre rich” colleges. He easily reels off the names of prestigious schools his students attend. He also tracks the progress of former students, including American Idol’s Adam Lambert. John is refreshingly free of ego for a man of his accomplishments. He’s directed, taught and created programs for young people in the arts for 20 years. Lighthouse Youth Theatre, the performance arm of the program, was formed in 2006. In 2013, Fanelli raised money to build his new state-of-the-art musical theatre space called Standing Ovation Studios, in Armonk. This was a giant leap forward. “We always had the teaching skills and now we have the facilities to take our students to the next level.” The space is massive, but fills up quickly with creative energy.
In planning his line-up, John not only confers with his staff, he also appreciates feedback from students and parents. Youngsters come to study “because they hear from friends that we have a program that fosters a positive environment where students can explore their own creativity. All of my teachers and technical staff are theatre professionals who have a passion for teaching the craft. A large majority of our audience is friends and family of the students, but we’re now getting many people who come to our shows with no connection to the cast because you can see a terrific show with talent and excellent production value for a great price. I truly believe that good youth theatre is the new community theatre,” enthuses John. Spring and summer programs include acting and dance classes for all ages and skill levels.
Performance is at a fever pitch during spring and summer with several age groups participating: Lollipops (Ages 5-9), Spotlight (Ages 5-12), Main-stage (Ages 8-18) and Protege (audition-only group for serious actors ages 13-18). In addition, there are one week programs using the hottest Musical Theatre shows to teach musical theatre technique, and summer workshops at Standing Ovation Studios in Armonk and at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut.
Sam Morell is a font of knowledge about Armonk; he goes to town meetings, supports candidates, and can suggest the best restaurants in the area. His affection for the town led him to form The Small Town Theatre Company. He and co-founder Donna Garr were out walking one day in 2008. Garr reminisced about the way things used to be, when the village was smaller and cultural events were shared and appreciated by the tight-knit community. “We could do that now,” Sam realized. The Hergenhan Center would be ideal. The idea became a reality with the help of many others who shared the vision. Participants come from various walks of life, and numerous types of entertainment are involved. Sam asserts, “The common denominator is that it has to be quality.”
The mission is “to work with highly creative, talented, and dedicated people to produce high quality cultural events in the Westchester area. These include theatrical plays, summer concerts, play readings, variety showcases, as well as theatre and film festivals.” In October, 2010, the group produced its first annual Theatre Festival of short plays, including both comedies and dramas; in the spring of 2011, the first annual Film Festival was organized.
Morell, a highly intelligent chemical engineer and entrepreneur with a curious mind, has learned a great deal from the experience. His work has been helped by his avocation. His acting/directing involvement allows him to balance his “left-brain” engineering activities with a “right-brain” theatrical experience. He “was forced to learn and make use of creative tools (video, photography, motion graphics, audio, editing, etc.) to help promote The Small Town Theatre Company…I now appreciate how to deploy these creative tools on highly technical subjects which makes our technical presentations more interesting.” In return, he’s helped more creative types to successfully market themselves.
The more serious you are about the work, the more important it is to keep a sense of humor. Sam recalls “one time we were doing a mini concert titled, “Three Sopranos and a Piano,” and the pianist forgot to turn off his mobile phone. One of his family members unexpectedly called him and the loud phone ringing was amplified and broadcasted via his lapel mike to our audience. To lighten up the embarrassing interruption, the pianist blurted out to the caller, ‘I thought I told you to not call me at work!!!’ Naturally, it took some time for the laughter and giggling to stop by both the performers and our audience. I would say it took about a good five minutes before decorum was restored.”
Quality is always at the forefront of Sam’s mind. “You must ask yourself if you feel satisfied that you’re doing justice to your art. You should be your own best critic. All aspects of production are your canvas. Are you proud of your work?” In the case of Sam Morell, the answer must be a resounding ‘Yes!’ Upcoming productions include: Orphans by Lyle Kessler on April 17, 18, 24, 25 and I Am My Own Wife on June 12, 13, 19, 20. For further information: smalltowntheatre.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Barbara Simonetti has had a lifelong interest in theatre. Even in Tokyo, she was active in the Tokyo International Players and Tokyo Theatre for Children. So it was only natural that when she, Hal Simonetti, and Susan Geffen were sitting around a kitchen table discussing the new Whippoorwill Hall Theatre at the North Castle Public Library, they got the idea to put on a show.
In Susan’s words: “We started with a reading of Love Letters in 1996… and the idea for a theatre group took seed. In 1997, we put on 84 Charring Cross Road and The Armonk Players was up and running.” This community theatre is supported by The Friends of the North Castle Library. Talent comes from Rockland County and New York, as well as Westchester.
Hal adds, “When we started the Armonk Players, there was one big risk–we had no idea how much interest we would find; theatrical talent/interest and behind-the-scene workers willing to come in. But, from the start, they came from all directions–people pursuing unrelated careers by day, but loving theatre, and wanting to actually do it as well as see it. They found a ready outlet for their creative energies through the Players. Not to be too dramatic about it, (and no one could see it when this thing began), but a door was opened to enriching the lives of many people with friendship and creative work–quite a few of them in from the start, years ago, still going.”
Barbara recalls, “As our reputation for ‘really good’ community theatre grew, we began to find eager talent from all over Westchester, and soon we had a board. At first, we did comedies and dramas; later, we added musicals to our season. Readings, labelled ‘Simply Theatre,’ were also a great way to feature newer talent and plays. The audience grew from locals to larger as word of mouth and reputation spread.” The Board decides on the presentations; upcoming programs include a Reading in April, and a show, June 4-7.
One of the most exciting aspects of live theatre is that anything can happen–and does. The story that Susan tells provides insight as to how resourceful those brave enough to put on a show must be. “Given that the show must go on…in 2000, we were about to raise the curtain on Octette Bridge Club when the electricity went out in town. We asked the audience to go to their cars and get flashlights. We put on the show by the lights the audience provided. It was a big success and fun for all involved after we got over the shock of the dark theatre.”
Hal is justly proud of what’s been accomplished. “What distinguishes the Armonk Players from other similar groups is that, in addition to bringing outstanding theatre into the community–quality plays, musicals and readings–we offer our members the full theatre experience as well. Anyone from Armonk or the surrounding communities wishing to act, sing, direct, design sets, build and paint them, find props, do lighting and sound, sell tickets or count cash–can come on board, exercise their interests, and have fun and friendship at the same time.”
Michall Jeffers and her husband, photographer John Warner, are long-time residents of Northern Westchester. As a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle, Michall is a card-carrying professional theatre critic.