Luke LeLaio says his biggest challenge as program director of the Herricks High School’s Student Television Arts Company is to find ways to inspire students to challenge themselves y.
“You’re constantly trying to find what’s going to make a kid jump through the roof and get into something,” LeLaio said. “The thing about STAC is it’s different every year because the students are different every year.”
LeLaio starts with students who have auditioned in one or more artistic disciplines to be admitted program.
But once the students get into the program LeLaio begins to move them out of their comfort zones. Actors learn to paint and painters become actors or directors of self-created video projects.
It is an approach that suits LeLaio, who has directed the program since 2004 and has worked as a record producer, rock guitarist and off-Broadway director. It is also one enthusiastically supported by his students.
“I love STAC. Everything’s new. It’s a surprise every day,” said senior Jill Stacom, a three-year veteran of the program who mentors the “newbies.”
Stacom has concentrated on writing and directing short-form videos, producing scripts written to Hollywood specifications.
While students are given latitude to explore their abilities in different media, LeLaio provides them with a framework for assignments that are, in many cases “surprises” to challenge spontaneous creativity.
Last week, student directors, including Stacom, were asked to shoot videos to evoke a sense of time moving rapidly in STAC “commercials” – videos about Herricks High activities use to increase interest in the program.
Her solution was to shoot a sequence of students appearing to move at frantic paces through the hallways while one student moved slowly.
For many students in the program, STAC presents an opportunity to tap into skills they never realized they had.
Senior Viviana Vargas, who plans to major in drama in college, entered the program on the strength of her acting prowess. But as she worked on a cubist painting, she talked about the process of self-discovery she was experiencing.
“I always liked doing art, but I never had a chance to do it until I came into the program,” Vargas said.
Sophomore Sarah Robinson had been accustomed to working with water colors, but has expanded her skills into oil painting and sculpture in her short time in the course, which she said doesn’t even feel like schoolwork.
“I like all the art I do. I don’t feel like I’m in school,” she said. “I’ve improved so much since I’ve been in this class.”
Freshman Scott LaMarca, an actor and musician, has developed an affinity for photography while working in the program.
“It is definitely a positive experience. We open our minds to a wider range of arts,” LaMarca said.
For senior musician and actor John Brautigan, who plays several instruments, STAC has provided him with an opportunity to stretch his talent beyond performing songs to seriously work on composing material of his own.
Challenged to write a cabaret tune, Brautigan had hit a block trying to compose until LaLaio turned him onto a Bertolt Brecht lyric, which helped him make a breakthrough.
“I’ve got a good thing going right now,” he said, briefly interrupting his composition work on the piano – an instrument he had never composed on before. “It’s about learning the creative process and dealing with problems we get into.” Molly Dannenberg, who was in the STAC program for three years, is concentrating on writing plays as a freshman at DePaul University as a result of her experience in the Herricks High School program.
“I got in STAC for writing. We learned different formats,” she said. “STAC helped me come to terms with different formats and styles to get an exposure to them.”
Students write blogs about their different creative experiences in the program that provide LeLaio with insights to their artistic progress. The students also submit quarterly portfolios on the work they do that occupies two hours of their school day.
But their apparent sense of delight about what they’re doing is clear evidence that the challenges LeLaio presents them are effective.
As junior Megan Haug, an aspiring actor and filmmaker, put it: “It’s the work that drives you crazy but that you love to do.”