The Examiner

Byram Hills Honors Distinguished Theater Program Grads

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The five Byram Hills High School graduates who attended Saturday’s ceremony unveiling the theater program’s honors wall. From left, Grant Sturiale, Chris Cummings, Michael Cummings, Sobha Kavanakudiyil and Stephanie Failing Saletan, in front of the plaques.

It’s been more than 40 years since Grant Sturiale graduated from Byram Hills High School, but the time he spent there created the foundation for his career.

Sturiale, a member of the Class of 1975, was one of the many students over the years deeply involved in the school’s theater program, which served as a springboard to successful careers in television, film, the stage or as part of technical crews.

While his interest was more in music than performing, he credited his theater experience at Byram Hills for pointing him in the right direction.

“It really guided me into the world that I live in now, into the theater business, and my love for the theater was really nurtured here,” said Sturiale, a composer, who for 10 years conducted the Radio City Music Hall orchestra for the annual Christmas Spectacular and was associate conductor for a variety of Broadway shows. “It really all started here.”

Sturniale was one of two dozen alumni recognized Saturday afternoon as the first set of inductees of the Byram Hills Theatre Honors, a wall of fame with plaques containing the names of the inductees located a short distance down the hallway from the main entrance. The former students were also joined on the wall by the program’s first director, Gene Bissell, and retired director Joy Varley. The school’s current theater group is named after Varley.

The idea for the tribute was sparked by current Theater Director John Lopez, who earlier this year noticed that 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the program’s first-ever production of “Oliver!” Lopez said with so many of the school’s graduates having gone on to accomplished careers, it would be a fitting tribute for the program’s golden anniversary.

The ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the weekend of this year’s student musical production of “Les Miserables.”

“This wall of honorees serves as both a tribute to the talent and dedication of former students and staff and as an inspiration for future generations of actors and technicians,” Lopez said. “We have students already saying ‘I want my name on that wall.’”

Five inductees were able to attend Saturday’s ceremony, agreeing that the school’s program had a profound impact on their development. Christopher Cummings, a senior exhibit designer who develops interactive environments for museums, aquariums and visitor centers, said the theater program provided creative students and those who loved the arts with an outlet as well as camaraderie.

Cummings, a crew member while in high school, said the responsibility placed on him by Varley also helped him to mature.

“By the time I was a junior, Joy Varley gave me the key to the theater and said, ‘I’ve got a concert coming up. I need you to make the lights look good. I’m counting on you to make the lights look good,’” said Cummings, a 1995 graduate. “I remember having that key to the theater and feeling that sense of responsibility, and having that as a junior was very empowering and very formative.”

Another inductee, Sobha Kavanakudiyil, who loved theater since middle school, said Varley and the program instilled confidence in her. In particular, she remembered one year’s production of “Into the Woods” where she was on stage for the entire production.

Today, Kavanakudiyil is a faculty member in the Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at City College, one of only 11 schools across the United States that trains faculty to help build school theater programs.

“The confidence that I had, the training that I had, Joy Varley really tapped into me the innate ability that I had,” she said. “It gave me a lot of confidence in school, it was something I was good at.”

Among the notable graduates who were also inducted on Saturday were Eddie Cahill (Class of 1996) who has had roles in television shows “Sex and the City,” “Friends,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit;” Bryce Dallas Howard (Class of 1999), who has performed on Broadway and has appeared in an array of films including Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of “As You Like It,” “The Twilight Sage: Eclipse” and “Jurassic World;” and Tom Kitt (Class of 1992), who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and two Tony Awards for “Next to Normal.”

Additional graduates are expected to be inducted each year.


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