Howard students help set the scene for young actors

Hammond High craft class builds stage props service

December 26, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When a play takes place in a hotel, it is helpful if the set includes walls.

Oakland Mills High School staff and students were planning a production of Ask Any Girl in the fall, but they returned from summer vacation to find that all of their sets - built and saved over 10 years - had been discarded during a school construction project. So they turned to a group of students at Hammond High School who are good at building walls, doors, windows, stairs and other pieces that literally set the stage for school plays in Howard County.

About a year ago, the Hammond group started a business called Center Line Productions, which sells sets to other schools that can benefit from their expertise.

"We want to help improve the quality of theater throughout the county," said Julian Lazarus, Hammond drama teacher and staff adviser for Center Line.

Some schools have nicer facilities and more support, while others lack the space and equipment to make and store high-quality sets. "We have the capability of building a quality product," Lazarus said.

Most of the students involved in Center Line take a daily stagecraft class for credit, while a few others volunteer after school. The business helps them make money for their drama department, "so we make our sets better," said Randy Preston, a junior from Jessup. Plus, he said, "I like stagecraft. It is a favorite class for me."

The students have done several projects and are starting work on two movable ships for Long Reach High School's production of The Princess Bride. Oakland Mills' sets for Ask Any Girl were their largest job.

When the year started at Oakland Mills, "we came in and found nothing," said Kevin Shea, English and drama teacher.

They also lacked thousands of dollars to buy new sets and didn't have the time and tools to build them.

Center Line built about 15 set pieces at a reasonable price, Shea said. "I don't know that I could say enough good things about the kids at Hammond," he said. If they are given the specifications, "they can and will build it, and they will do a wonderful job."

When Lazarus arrived at Hammond High in 2001, the scene shop was so full of wood, tools and old sets that he couldn't walk more than a few feet inside. "We started reorganizing," he said, and he taught the students about building techniques as they went along.

He has a background in the technical aspects of theater from paying his way through undergraduate studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York by working behind the scenes at dozens of theaters. He is also using his summers to earn a master's degree in educational theater at New York University.

Hammond students recycled as much material as they could, built racks and storage areas, put in cabinets and workbenches and added lights. Home Depot donated a saw. A parent gave them a vacuum. Lazarus bought tools - including an air compressor - with profits from the first Center Line jobs and brought other equipment from home.

Surveying the 15-by-45-foot shop this month, he said, "This is what you would find in most theaters, and that is what I was going for."

Toward the end of last year, he had the idea to offer the students' services to other schools.

"It is a good experience for the kids," Lazarus said, because they would much rather build something than do paperwork, and it can help them learn practical skills.

"I try to help out with everything," said Steven Marker, a sophomore from Columbia. "I want to be an architect. [Center Line] will help me do that."

It is also a good opportunity for students who are better with tools than with history or chemistry, Lazarus said. "My kids get a lot of pride out of it because they can go to another school and sit down and watch the show and say, `You know what, I made that.' "

Center Line asks its customers to pay for materials and a profit margin of 15 percent, Lazarus said. The workers usually build blank walls and let the students in the production paint them. "I don't want to take that experience away from kids at other schools," Lazarus said.

He believes that nicer sets are one element that will help school drama departments improve their reputations and draw more fans, which will mean more money and more opportunities to continue improving.

"The idea is to help out the other schools while making a little bit for ourselves," Lazarus said.

That little bit helped the students stretch their abilities for the most recent production at Hammond, where students staged A Streetcar Named Desire on a two-story set.

"I was very impressed with the students and what they've done," said Hammond Vice Principal Rose Friss. "If you saw the set, you would be amazed. It was worthy of a professional theater."

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