Needs Improvment Battle serves as protest against cuts to drama department



Current members of the Needs Improvment Class as well as Alumni ranging back to 2003 hold signs protesting the budget cuts to the high school’s drama department.

The Needs Improvment show opened in silence. Wearing grim and determined expressions, alumni and students held up signs reading, “Theater was my home at BHS,” “The arts are essential” and “Arts saved my life.”

Live-streamed to over 200 audience members on YouTube on May 29 at 7 pm, the Needs Improvment Show began with a protest but segued into an “improv battle” where current students and alumni competed to determine who had stronger improvisational skills.

The opening protest came in light of the School Committee’s decision to issue reduction-in-force notices (RIFs) to all non-tenured teachers, as well as all faculty in the visual arts, Health and Fitness, Career and Technical Education (CTE), library and Performing Arts departments. This means elective teachers, like Drama teacher and Needs Improvment advisor Mark Vanderzee, may not be employed by the Brookline Public Schools in September. Additionally, there may be no drama program at the high school next year.

In a gesture of respect and solidarity, alumni and current drama students expressed their gratitude to the performing arts departments.

Current co-captain of Needs Improvment, senior Renata Shen, began the night’s speeches with a description of how the high school drama department has shaped who she is as a person and has been a home for her throughout her high school career.

Next, Shruti Nayar ’11 described the racism and discrimination she faced before moving to Brookline and expressed gratitude towards the high school and the drama department for lending her a safe venue for creative expression.

“The drama teachers have fostered a space for inclusion and creativity and an outlet for unacknowledged emotions. More than teachers, they became life mentors,” Nayar said. “To the superintendent and the school committee, please understand that the department is indispensable to the culture at BHS and, consequently, the Brookline community as a whole. Now, more than ever, we need the arts to help us cope with the collective trauma that we’re facing.”

Alum Nik Walker ‘11 agreed, noting that in difficult times, many look towards the arts to help find comfort and solace.

“Art is what helps trauma heal,” Walker said. “Brookline High, for as long as I can remember, has been a bastion of art. I would not have survived Brookline High, or Boston, or my adult life had Brookline High not upheld the arts. {The drama department} taught me how to cope, using my art.”

Walker emphasized that he understands that the School Committee is facing pressure due to the budget shortfall but cannot condone the cutting of arts programs. Once again, he stressed how the arts must be protected.

“Even on the tightest budget, cutting arts programs will never be the right choice,” Walker said. “People want to hear about my time on “Hamilton,” and my time with Lin {Manuel-Miranda}, and on Broadway, and on TV sets. Even now, my industry is keeping people’s hopes alive. The drama department at Brookline High School kept my hopes alive, and we will do everything we can to keep the department alive for as long as we can.”

As the final speaker before the beginning of the improv battle, parent Wendy Swart Grossman encouraged viewers to rally behind teachers and arts programs at the School Committee meeting on June 4.

Watch the virtual protest and Needs Improvment show here.