RIVERSIDE – A group of Riverside Brookfield High School students were recently spurred to action after the District 208 Board of Education announced cuts to their improv program at a May Board of Education meeting.
Students said the cuts come after the school promised a larger salary increase to the group's faculty adviser, which they were unable to deliver during negotiations with the teacher. As a result, the group's program, which historically included two, two-night shows a year at RB, will be cut to one.
The student improv group, known at The Shenanigans, is a off-shoot of the school's Drama and Improv Club. Members audition for a place in the selective troupe through casting calls at the school. In the past, students have put on two, two-night shows – in the winter and spring – at the school's Little Theatre to sold out audiences. In the 2014-2015 school year, the group's members said they have been cut down to just one show in the winter.
Collin Hughes, 17, of Riverside, will enter his senior year at the school in the fall. In addition to cuts to his improv group's productions, he said, he's concerned about a larger trend of cuts to the school's dramatic programs in recent years. Hughes cited the school cutting the fall play and a decrease in the school's musical productions to every other year.
Hughes, and other students, said they're sympathetic to the school's financial needs, but that its members want greater control over the program's budget and for their productions to return to two, two-night performances each year.
"It's time for a club to fight back [against budget cuts]," Hughes said.
Jacob Palka, 20, of Riverside, is a RB graduate who now attends Ball State University and was one of The Shenanigan's founding members.
"We were just a group of kids who wanted to put on a show to do improv games and sketch comedy," Palka said.
The group got its start with its first show in December 2009, Palka said. The show was a big success and the group put its second two-night performance on in May the following semester. The 2010-2011 school year saw the start of auditions for the troupe, which Palka said was largely self-funded through ticket sales and fundraisers to pay for props, costumes and a security detail at the shows. The school's Board added a stipend that year for a faculty adviser, which was paid for by the district and funded by student club fees.
Like Palka, Hughes said he understands that the school has a tight budget, but lamented the deep cuts to dramatic programs at the school, which the students consider to be overly sports oriented.
"There are nine assistant coaches for football," Hughes said. "We don't want to throw [the football team] under the bus, we like them, but do they really need nine coaches?"
Shenanigan's member Andy Volpe, 16, said he agreed and added their program doesn't need much to support itself.
According to members, each show brings the school roughly $900 at $3 per ticket in the school's 300-seat Little Theatre. Over four shows a year, the club could bring in $3,600, in addition to the $75 student fee each of the 13 Shenanigans members pays to the school to participate in clubs. Students said all the money raised goes to the school and they are not informed of their operating budget. If they want props, they purchase them themselves are are reimbursed by the school. They propose raising ticket prices to $5 to cover more expenses, or even adding shows to bring in additional revenue for the school, in addition to club fundraisers.
The Shenanigan's members said two shows each season is needed largely out of demand, as shows sell out quickly. In addition, they said the work that goes into each night's performance takes significant time and commitment.
"It would be like telling the football team their season was being cut to a few games," Hughes said. "Would [all the work practicing] be worth it?"
Kevin Skinkis, the district's superintendent, said that clubs and sports teams across the school have seen program cuts in recent years.
"Everyone experienced some cuts," Skinkis said, and added that 24 coaching positions were cut.
But, through the Board's most recent contract negotiations, several clubs that lost faculty sponsors were reinstated, Skinkis said. And, the school's musical production is returning again this year, but there will still be no fall play.
Palka, Hughes and Volpe said the school should be more supportive of the show and the Shenanigan's program, because of the benefits it provides to students. Palka is now the co-host and head writer of Ball State's weekly late night show, a position he said the Shenanigans prepared him for.
"You're always improvising in life, it teaches everyday skills," Palka said. "People skills, public speaking, confidence – everyone should take an improv class.
Hughes agreed and said his time performing with The Shenanigans has left him prepared for everything from job interviews to writing college applications. Students said having additional control over their budget, even if it was cut back, would teach them financial management and responsibility.
The students have a meeting with Skinkis and other administrators at the end of June and are hoping they can come to an agreement that will benefit all involved. According to Skinkis, the students can talk with their adviser about getting more input on how their club's budget is managed and that he sees the idea as a good learning opportunity to students. Ultimately, he said, the money raises goes back to the club, not the district.
"It's up to the sponsor, but they could give them [more input]," Skinkis said. "Our intention was never to harm the improv club. We're going to spend some time meeting with them and see how we can work it out."
The Shenanigan's members are hopeful they can make a strong case to the Board.
"We want to be able to get up there an perform," Hughes said. "We do it for the students and the community and we do a good job. We like making people laugh. If the community and students [want to see that continue] they need to voice their support too."
If they can't count on RB the students said, they'll consider packing it up and going elsewhere, possibly putting on their own performances at Riverside Town Hall. But that would be a shame they said: It would mean the loss of yet another creative outlet for RB students and less laughter for all.