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Independent Study

What a group of talented kids and one inspired teacher can do with no help from their school.

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By Ben Joravsky

The school was big and filled with strange faces, so Kathy Vertucci found her way by joining the Company.

That's the name of the theater crowd at Whitney Young High School, an unofficial club of more than 100 students who socialize, give each other solace, and put on plays.

There's nothing like it at any other public school in the city, at least in terms of productivity. The Company stages three shows a year, including one musical featuring a full student orchestra. They build their own sets and make many of their own costumes, and through their efforts send a bold message about the importance of the arts, even as central office honchos contemplate further cuts in the arts and other electives.

"It's hard to explain how much confidence and fun we get out of being involved in the Company, and how much we love putting on these plays," says Vertucci. "This gives us a chance to work together on a real challenge. It's the best part of our day."

The program's sponsor is an English teacher named David Canepa, a sardonic and gruff bear of a man who commands the allegiance of the students even though he doesn't pretend to follow the latest adolescent trends and has no theatrical background. He once dropped out of college to join the army.

"I wasn't prowar, I was proadventure," says Canepa of his days in Vietnam with the Green Berets. "I was one of those romantic young men who went over there looking for adventure and wound up getting more than I bargained for."

He returned, he says, a little wiser and more jaded. "When I got back we hadn't reached the current stage of military chic, so I had to put up with a lot of crap. I was put down. I was called a fool. I took off my uniform and never put it back on. I was pretty bitter. It's nice that everyone makes amends now, and thank you for your apologies. But that original reaction really hurt.

"It's hard to explain if you haven't been there, but you live in terror during war, always worried about saving your neck. Then all of a sudden one day you're home. After you spend 13 months of your life shooting it takes a long time to sleep without having a gun by your head. When I returned from Vietnam a lot of things looked superficial. Gradually I worked my way back."

He says he found solace and salvation teaching high school English. "I got a job at Gordon Tech--I was going to save the world and the next generation for $7,200 a year," he says with a laugh. "I taught there for four years and then moved on to the [public schools], where I got to make really big dollars--$16,000. Anyone who goes into teaching for the money is crazy."

By 1983 he had found his way to Whitney, at 211 S. Laflin. Within a few months he was staging plays. "I got into it almost by accident," he says. "It just seemed like a neat way of teaching drama--when you stage them they come to life in a way they never can on the page. I didn't really know what I was doing. But I wasn't afraid to ask. I sought the counsel of people who had taught this stuff. And the kids have always been wonderful. They showed me with their skills."

He also had some benefits that teachers at other schools couldn't match. For one thing, Whitney Young's a magnet school, meaning enrollment's limited to the highest-scoring applicants. For another, it has modern, marvelous facilities, including a 500-seat auditorium, a big room backstage for set construction, and an orchestra pit. It's also run by a relatively tolerant bunch of bosses, unlike many other schools, notably Lane Tech, whose principal effectively disbanded a highly regarded theater program by dismissing the drama coach.

Over the years Canepa and his students have staged shows by Gershwin, Wilder, Shaw, and Shakespeare. In 1993 they won a brief splash of unsolicited publicity when they had to cancel a production of Les Miserables because the show's New York producers wouldn't grant them production rights. Other than that they work in obscurity, as do most high school theater companies, filling the hall with parents, family, and friends.

"It's a pay-as-you-go type of thing," says Martha Murphy, a music teacher at Whitney who helps Canepa stage musicals. "We pay our bills with the proceeds from ticket sales."

The universe is centered in Canepa's office, a drab, windowless room behind the stage. The students meet there every day, before, during, and after rehearsals.

"We're family--that's the only way to describe it," says Peter Bernardini, a senior. "We come here during our free time. We do our homework here. Mr. Canepa's great. We call him Mr. C. He's got that rough exterior and he can be kind of intimidating, but you sit down and talk to him and he'll listen. He always says, 'I don't do this for me, I do it for you--so do it.' He lets us be in charge."

"I like being onstage with the lights on you," says Vertucci. "But it's also great not being yourself. You know, not having to deal with your own problems."

The students also have discovered the pleasures of collaboration, as they move from auditions through rehearsals to runs that last as long as 14 shows. "You get so nervous during auditions," says Ben Lieber, a junior. "Mr. C. gives you a partner and they call your name and you walk to center stage. You're all alone and Mr. C.'s in the audience, and you do your reading and then he says 'next.' That's it--not 'good job,' not 'bad job,' just 'next.' You find out if you made it when he posts the character list. But you know, nobody's too crushed. If you don't get a part you can work on crew or costumes. There's a lot to do."

The productions can be a little uneven. Unlike the members of Whitney Young's highly ranked basketball teams, who have been playing ball since early childhood, few high school actors have previous training. "The kids in the suburbs will have lessons from fourth grade on, but this is all so new to most of our kids," says Murphy. "They learn very fast. They want to learn. The real tragedy is that we're not teaching them at a younger age."

Many of the students describe an almost spiritual satisfaction at the close of a show. Vertucci says she broke into tears at the end of her first play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

"I played Martini, the delusional one," she says. "I was so nervous, and then I went on the stage and I was all right. Afterward I was so sad. I cried a lot. It was so fulfilling being on that stage and then once it was over I missed it."

Most of their fellow students are supportive, Company members say, though they sometimes feel an undercurrent of envy. "It's sort of depressing, but there are kids who think we're snobby or haughty," says Lieber. "Someone will say, 'I'd join the Company but I'm not good enough.' You know, like we're putting him down. I don't think of us as an exclusive group, but we do have to watch that stuff, even internally. We had a little bit of a problem not long ago. A bunch of us wanted to go to a movie at the Water Tower, but there weren't enough tickets for the show we wanted to see. So some of the group said something like, 'Well, you guys can't go.' There wasn't a big fight or anything, but it kind of hurt and we had to think, 'Where are we heading with this?' I mean, if we all can't go then none of us should go. Mr. C. handled it. He called a meeting and said, 'Look at what you're doing.' He left us alone to work it out, and we did."

They defend themselves against the elitist tag by noting the Company's open to anyone who wants to join. "Just look around. You'll see blacks, whites, Hispanics--we're the most diverse group in the school," says Vertucci. "We have jocks, academic people--the door's open to anyone who wants to work on a show."

The current production, Saint Joan, opens February 28 and features Vertucci and Bernardini in key roles.

"Some of our kids are incredibly talented, and I encourage them to continue with theater in college," says Canepa. "I'm realistic enough to know that most of our kids won't go into show business. So what? This is not about being a training ground for Broadway. This is about giving them confidence and teaching them to work well with others. It's amazing to have kids who come in as shrinking violets and then you see them grow. Nothing teaches self-esteem better than achievement, and they really achieve something by the end of a show. Besides, it's fun. These days backstage in the Company are the days they'll always remember." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Canepa photo by Jon Randolph.

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