Niceville High School students prepare the stage for their opening night on May 3. The drama program has seen a 180º turnaround since Ritchie Jackson became director. He says he's worried that the increasing number of students who dual enroll or homeschool could have an affect on funding for the arts in schools across Okaloosa County.

Newsies Goes to the NHS Stage – Director Worries About Long Term Funding For The Arts

Niceville High School is gearing up for an exciting production of Newsies, featuring talented young actors and a compelling story. However, directors express concerns about long-term funding issues from the district, highlighting challenges faced by arts programs in schools today.

In just one week, the opening curtain will draw on the young players at Niceville High School as they unveil their newest production – Newsies. 

 

The story, which tells the tale of newsboys and reporters to a younger audience, will represent the first time two sophomores have been cast as leads in an NHS play in some time. 

 

Nicholas Venture joined up on the production of Newsies last year after seeing the Theatre Department’s production of Chicago. His eyes peer out from a mop of messy black hair with the zeal of a new convert. “Mostly everything,” he responded when asked about his favorite part of the musical, “There’s a lot of dancing, there’s a big set. There’s a lot of singing and a lot of dancing – pretty much everything. It’s basically everything we had from Chicago last year amplified into a different show. A lot more colors – a lot more dynamic.” Not just the acting – the whole school has pulled together to make this production a first-rate reality. “We have a lot of talent everywhere,” Venture added, “We’ve got dancers, we’ve got chorus people, and they are all in [the show]. So, it’s taking almost every element of Niceville High School – dancing, singing, robotics in some places, and we put it all together,” Venture said with gusto

 

 It took no convincing from Ritchie Jackson, the theatre director at NHS, to get him on board. “He had never done theatre at all, zero, nothing. He came up to me and said, ‘can I talk to you?'” Jackson remembers, “He asked me, ‘how do I do [theatre]? What do I do, how do I get in [the program]?” Once he got the part, Jackson remembers, he got a vocal coach on his own. “He said to me, ‘if I’m going to sing in front of people, I need to know what I am doing.’ He sat me down – He’s [said], ‘help me analyze my character. Let’s go through the script. Why does my character say this? Why does my character do that?’ I [said], ‘I want 30 of you.'”

a boy and a girl smile at the camera at Niceville High School.
Nicholas Venture and Lyla Paine, both sophomores at Niceville High School earned the lead parts in NHS' production of Newsies. This is the pair's first time as the leading actors in a school play.

Finances 

Lyla Paine plays opposite Venture as Katherine Plumber – a muckraking journalist out for a scoop on the next story. A sophomore as well, she looks over the production with pride and a passion for the arts. “I think it really shows how a community can come together and appreciate the performing arts,” Paine said, “Because in so many schools, not just in our state – but in our country – performing arts are struggling. Having the community come to the show and totally sell it out and hopefully enjoy every second of it – it would mean so much to not just a high school performing arts community, but just to the arts in general.”

The financial aspect may hit closer to home than she may have originally anticipated. 

The department did not always sell out shows and get rave reviews. Ten years ago, according to Jackson, the Niceville High School Drama Department was a dumping ground for kids with nowhere else to go. 

He took the job because he saw one of his niece’s plays on a trip back from New York City to Niceville. “I came and saw it, and it was horrifying. The play was written by the teacher; it was cardboard sets. Half the kids, you could tell, were there because it was a grade they had no desire to be there. And I just thought, this is what high school theaters become. I gotta fix this. So then I kind of got my life’s purpose.”

When Jackson arrived back on campus as a new theater teacher nine years ago, the theater department’s cash flow did not exist. 

Slowly but surely, the department’s finances improved. With each passing show, Jackson says the productions got a little more professional – giving them more money to spend. 

2023’s production of Chicago cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 for Niceville High School to put on – and netted them about double what they spent. The department hopes to earn even more money for bigger productions. 

The Theatre Departments of all Okaloosa County School District’s High Schools used to not receive money for the department’s needs from the district, according to Jackson. “Crystal Whittaker, who used to teach theatre at Fort Walton Beach High School, said, ‘Listen, the band gets $6,000 a year, the chorus gets $6,000 a year. We don’t get anything.'” Jackson and the other two Niceville High School Drama teachers said ‘good luck’ to her as she went to the school board to get a piece of the budget for the district drama programs. And she did it! That money was the seed money for Niceville High School to put on The Little Mermaid – and turn the department around.

Now – about 90% of the Niceville High School’s Drama program revenues come from their box office receipts – which is a good thing, according to Jackson, because he is concerned lower enrollement over the last couple of years could negatively impact arts budgets in Okaloosa County Public Schools.

Catherine Card, the Public Information Officer with the Okaloosa County School District, says “We will have a better idea of enrollment projections before the 2024-2025 school year starts. However, at present, we do not expect a significant decrease.”

Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1 into law. Our story on the bill signing reported the new law made every child in Florida eligible for a program that lets parents transfer the cost of educating their child from public schools to the private school of their choice – if they want to.

In that story, we cited a New Jersey think tank called The Education Law Center, which estimated that the law would reduce the amount of funding available to public schools like Niceville High School by $876 per pupil.

Nicholas Venture, the male lead in this year's musical, smiles on set. This is Venture's first year in the Drama Department at Niceville High School.

The Future 

Whatever the financial future holds, Jackson’s students have already made a decision: They want to pursue the arts with all their might, thanks to the way acting, singing, and dancing make them feel. Both of them said they wanted to pursue acting in college after graduating high school. 

Their optimism and hope about their future in the arts rests like a crown on Ritchie Jackson’s head when I repeat their words to him. It’s a sign to him that he can give something back to the art form that saved his life. 

“In high school. I was I was picked on really, really badly. And theater was kind of my escape,” Jackson remembers, “And if I hadn’t been close to my family, and I didn’t have theater, I probably would have killed myself. That’s how that’s what a bad place I was in. That theater saved me and I’ve seen it save other kids too.”

Jackson believes the theatre department plays a vital role in the school’s success – he says several of his students have told him this year they would not attend school if it was not for this class and this musical. “It’s powerful and it’s a big responsibility,” Jackson says, “But it’s something that I am passionate about. I’m not just teaching theatre because they needed a theatre teacher. I’m teaching theatre because it is my love. It’s what I want to do. I want to give these kids these kinds of experiences – where on closing night, they are sobbing because they took something that was nothing and made it into something for a brief, shining moment before it all just evaporates.” 

Show Details

If you want to catch the show (and if you’ve read this far, you want to) here are the details:

🎭 | Disney’s Newsies

🎟️ | Tickets at gofan.co

💵 | $15 for general admission and $20 for VIP. VIP includes a bottle of water and a bag of popcorn.

📆 | May 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11

⏰ | 7 pm (Matinées on May 4 and 11 at 2:00 pm)

📍| Niceville Auditorium

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