by Hank Baughman
“Every show. Every show the kids surprise me.”
Kids in breakout performances. Cheering, growing audiences. They drive Dan Krack. The Latrobe High Artistic Director has guided, nurtured, cajoled and pulled ever-better performances from more than 1,000 student actors and actresses, thru ten straight years of meticulous, grueling productions.
“I thought I was done at five years, ten shows,” says the English teacher and former professional actor who toured in a children’s show before becoming an educator. “I was tired,” he says. “There’s so much planning and management in stage productions. Not even the casts are aware of it. But I would have missed the magic and the thrills of seeing how the casts and audiences are moved by the shows. The fact is, these performances are important, to so many people, for so many reasons.”
So, theater champion that he is, Dan geared up and drove on – thru twelve shows, then sixteen. And in March, Krack and a stage-bursting cast of 60 high-amp teens put the director at a landmark 20 shows, with a blissful performance of Godspell that touched, uplifted and rocked.
“That was yet another show where the kids truly rose to the occasion,” Krack says. “Doing things they hadn’t done in rehearsal, and which they couldn’t do – until the audience. I sat in the director’s booth and cried.”
The kids cried too, after the show. As always.
Krack’s 20, increasingly ambitious productions, have been equally divided between plays and musicals. His favorite play?
“I would say Noises Off. Very technical, very fast-paced. Also, The Miracle Worker and The Crucible. Both very challenging as well.” Favorite musicals? “Children of Eden. First show we did that was completely sung. Also Grease and The Wizard of Oz.”
Musicals, of course, are tougher. “They’re bigger, more complex, requiring greater collaboration, linking dialogue, song and choreography, more intensive rehearsals,” Krack points out. “When I wanted to do Oz and West Side Story my theater friends said ‘Oh my God don’t try those, they’re just too much.’ But we did them. And well. We had the tornado in Wizard, and all the difficult dancing and music in West Side. That show was a little scary, one I thought might not work. But the kids, it was incredible to watch them come together and make it happen. The students on stage here are invested. Because they’ve seen the results. They know the reputation of Latrobe High shows.”
Indeed. The upward reputation and quality of shows by Dan Krack and his counterparts are making high-school musicals an increasingly hot ticket, their popularity flaring beyond the families and friends of talented teens, to regular theater-goers. No less than the Wall Street Journal has taken note of the sharper, richer productions on American school stages.
“High-school shows have become increasingly elaborate, with Broadway-worthy sets and local competitions for best actor and actress,” said a Journal story last month, front page. “Fans seek out the student performances for inexpensive entertainment or a chance to see a musical that otherwise might not be performed locally.”
Serendipitously, this discovery by the elite Journal of ascending school-stagecraft was co-written by Erich Schwartzel, a 2005 Latrobe High grad and rising, Hollywood-based star at the top national paper.
“It’s true,” Krack confirms. “Our musicals are getting more popular.” Big productions and on-the-money performers are key reasons, of course. Another is that Krack stays aware of audiences. “I did the updated, 2012 version of Godspell, rather than the original, because it has elements that kids connect with and today’s audiences can relate to.” Example? In one Bible-bending Godspell scene, Jesus takes a call on his cell phone, answering, “Dad?”
Krack’s directing style? “Collaborative and demanding,” he says. “In the beginning I yelled too much. Then I thought, no, this isn’t the kind of teacher I am. I won’t be that kind of director.”
His young show-makers appreciate and depend on his high skill and deep knowing. Say some of his student performers:
“He’s gifted at finding what each individual actor needs to do.”
“He really cares about us. He goes out of his way for us. ”
“He’s simply one of the greatest inspirations in my life.” And, “He talks to us in professional terms. That elevates us.”
Krack appreciates the adulation, but confesses that, “At the beginning of productions, I’m rough and I sometimes still lose my temper. The kids say, ‘Be careful, don’t release the Krackin.’ That’s my wild persona. But when it comes together, they’re all hugs and smiles, and at the end they say we wish this could go on forever.”
The prolific director is especially gratified that theater audiences are growing amidst the ever-flashing electronic screens that project and subsume American life.
“It’s thrilling that we can get people to unplug for a while. It shows that the community appreciates good, live shows.” But he wonders if schools can sustain or grow their arts programs, saying, “Everything comes down to high-stakes testing and the dollars that schools receive as a result of those tests. And when there’s less money, it’s the arts that are cut. But if they cut too much, they’re going to find that we don’t have creative thinkers.”
For now, high school stage-shows are on a roll, and Krack fans will be happy to know he’s here to stay.
“Oh yes, I love this school. The support is great. The students are welcoming to one another. It’s like family. English and theater. Teaching and directing. The perfect job.”
Next, Dan’s 21st production, in the fall. The kids will soon get Krackin.
Hank Baughman is a free-lance writer and media producer. He lives in Latrobe.