Thousands graduating high school with uncertain plans while Upper Darby Summer Stage cultivates students’ future plans long before most

Thousands graduating high school with uncertain plans while Upper Darby Summer Stage cultivates students’ future plans long before most

For many regional high school students, the month of June is almost always associated with graduation, but for the 30.8 percent of high school seniors who have no plans of pursuing college, June and graduation day might be a little less anticipated. To contrast, student technicians at Upper Darby Summer Stage have had the future – both college and career plans – set in stone for quite some time before graduation day.

Students like Upper Darby resident, Peter Cavanaugh have found their focus early in high school through Summer Stage’s technical theater program and have honed their craft immensely before even stepping onto a college campus. The soon-to-be program alumni then go on to find they are over prepared and thoroughly ahead of their college classmates in many ways.

Peter Cavanaugh of Upper Darby takes a quick break from drafting the scenic elements for Upper Darby Summer Stage’s 41st season. // Photo By: Dan Luner
Peter Cavanaugh of Upper Darby takes a quick break from drafting the scenic elements for Upper Darby Summer Stage’s 41st season. // Photo By: Dan Luner

Cavanaugh is planning to attend Ithaca College to pursue a theatrical production arts degree, focusing in lighting and sound design, but that wouldn’t have been possible if he never stepped foot in the 1600-seat theatre located in Drexel Hill.

“The summer after seventh grade, I was looking for something to do,” Cavanaugh said.

“I was into building and using my hands and my mom came across Summer Stage and at first I was apprehensive, but I signed up and the rest is history,” he added.

He started like any other participant, as a member of the general technical theatre program. Then he started spending more time in the carpentry shop, where he would become an apprentice, an intern, and now Assistant Technical Director.

Upper Darby Summer Stage’s technical theater program has bred some of the best and brightest in the business including Tim Mackay who has been at Flying By Foy for over 15 years.

Flying By Foy has provided aerial effects for countless Broadway productions (Mary Poppins, American Idiot, Cabaret) as well as NBC’s live broadcast of “Peter Pan,” Katy Perry’s California Dreams Tour and U2’s 360 Tour.

When it comes to lessons learned at Summer Stage, Mackay said, “As a staff member, I learned how to run a crew and manage my time, but I was never perfect; I tried to always learn.”

He added, “I think the core value that Summer Stage instilled in me is respect or love for my peers.”

Upper Darby Performing Arts Center’s Technical Director, Paul Moffitt, has seen many students like Cavanaugh excel in the technical theater program and beyond.

Moffitt said, “It’s very gratifying to see their hard work come to fruition.” He added, “There are several students who I believe have gone all the way [from the program to pursuing the trade] and Peter is definitely one of them.”

And while Cavanaugh’s technical theater career is just about to truly begin, Upper Darby Summer Stage serves as the start, which provided him with a solid foundation. There are less than a handful of theater programs in the region that give students the chance to work on seven shows across six weeks. Touching all aspects (scenic design, lighting, props, sound, etc.), the program is a training ground for many successful theater technicians.

“Summer Stage and the Upper Darby High School in general are really advanced in terms of high school theatre,” he said. Cavanaugh added, “The opportunities and working in a unique space like this are really going to help me when I head to Ithaca.”

“Unless they’re directly from the region, they’re [the employer] probably unaware of what’s involved,” Moffitt said when asked about Upper Darby Summer Stage from an employer’s perspective.

“In fact, they probably underestimate it,” he added.

Former Technical Director and Set Designer, Robert Babish would likely agree with Moffitt. Babish said, “The caliber of technicians working there [Upper Darby Summer Stage] really does compare well to some of the regional theatres I’ve played in.”

He added, “When I was there, it was needed to involve a lot of kids in the process. So I would do some backdrops with a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach so that many could be involved. There was this one shy kid who would come with his sister and he turned out to be so good at painting the black outlines, that I put him in charge of that process. He went on to dance in the shows and eventually later with the Pennsylvania Ballet, but he said it was ultimately because I believed in him.”

Now living and acting full-time on the west coast, Babish concluded, “I may have left Philadelphia, but the feeling and experience of Summer Stage has never left me.”

And in similar fashion to Babish, Moffitt has instilled his belief in Cavanaugh, as he will help lead the technical production aspects of Upper Darby Summer Stage’s 41st season.

When asked to sum up all his experiences in technical theatre using one word, Cavanaugh meaningfully said, “One word can’t sum up all that it is.”

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