Theater, Improv facing new challenges for 2015

Evan Moloney, News Editor

Go to Hollis-Brookline High School, and any student has always been able to find a unique series of opportunities, between arts, technology, teacher quality and school reputation. But with recent developments, the theater department in particular may be facing drastic challenges, and some classes and programs may no longer be offered at the beginning of next year.

HBHS Theater teacher Elyse Tomlinson has worked at this school for fifteen years, and has announced to SAU-41 her plans to retire at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. Tomlinson was hired for the purpose of building a theater program at HBHS, and the vast majority of the school’s plays, musicals and stage-performance classes have been her creations. For a period of six years, she entirely worked in theater, and for her entire time at HB, she has had at least a few classes in that department.

As Tomlinson leaves, the blatant reality is that some of the more central aspects to the theater program may leave with her. The shows Hollis-Brookline students have created under her guidance have been highlighted for their excellence, not just in the immediate community, but in the wider region as well.

The student theater community at Hollis-Brookline is thriving and tight-knit, and there is little to no chance that there will be no more plays or musicals at the school in coming years. There are other faculty at the school with the appropriate credentials and experience to direct shows, and the student network performing naturally creates will adapt to accommodate the new challenges that come with a change in leadership and direction. However, at much higher risk with Tomlinson’s departure is the school’s theater classes–Acting, Theater Studies and the Improv classes.

These classes have grown because of, and in some cases been created by Tomlinson. And while Theater Studies and Acting pull mostly from disciplines in performance, technical work and writing that are also at play in after-school performances, the Improv classes particularly are on the chopping block.

While some schools have after-hours troupes, there are no known schools in the United States that offer a full-year Improv course, let alone a multi-tiered program. And the HBHS Improv classes have been popular since their inception, a creative, spontaneous sub-culture at the high school.

While Tomlinson has the credentials to teach the courses, having trained in improvisational theater with the famed Second City improv enterprise, there are no other teachers with similar experience. The class is a rarity, but so are its teachers, and with Tomlinson’s departure, the possibility grows that the class may not be included in the curriculum in years to come.

Improv I, Improv II and Advanced Improv are all offered in the 2015-2016 curriculum, and students can select these options for the upcoming school year. However, classes in the past have required no fewer than 15 enrolled students to be included in the next year’s curriculum, and this or something similar is likely to be the case in this coming year. And with Tomlinson’s retirement, the program is unlikely to be as popular among theater-community students who would often take the courses as they performed with their teacher after school.

Should the Improv classes have demand enough to be offered in the coming year, they will continue under the supervision of another teacher, likely one who already works at the school. But if the classes don’t meet the minimum requirement for enrollment, they may well be removed from the course list for next year. And once a class so dependent upon year-after-year involvement by key members isn’t offered, it is unlikely to ever gain the momentum to resurface in the future, especially given that Tomlinson will no longer be here to teach it.

Altogether, the Hollis-Brookline theater department has been a force to be reckoned with for over a decade. Many students and alumni at HBHS are known to have taken the full-Theater path, enrolling in every course the department offers and working in every show. Tomlinson and the department have produced dozens of students who went on to study theater in college and perform professionally, with one still performing at The Second City, the same Improv company where Tomlinson herself trained. And as classes are brought before the chopping block this year, so too is a powerful legacy the school has created.

There is time left for these programs, as course selections continue. But any student who has even considered taking one of the classes must take the opportunity to sign up, now, simply because this year may be the final opportunity to ever enroll in such a class.

While Tomlinson is set to retire at the end of this year, her students and the theater program she will leave behind are nowhere near ready to fade away. The HBHS Theater department has flourished for fifteen years, and if all goes well, it may well continue far into the future with a legacy today’s students left behind.