Friday, May 07, 2021

Person of the Week

A Well-Deserved Curtain Call for Cindy Genzano

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Cindy Genzano led the expansion and success of the North Branford High School (NBHS) drama program for more than 36 years, until a pandemic scene stealer brought down the curtain. Photo courtesy of Cindy Genzano

Cindy Genzano led the expansion and success of the North Branford High School (NBHS) drama program for more than 36 years, until a pandemic scene stealer brought down the curtain. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Genzano )

Cindy Genzano led the expansion and success of the North Branford High School (NBHS) drama program for more than 36 years, until a pandemic scene stealer brought down the curtain—and dimmed the lights on the opportunity for Cindy’s fans and friends to congratulate her and send her off on her retirement with a well-deserved curtain call.

Last June, amidst school closures and uncertainty brought by COVID-19, Cindy quietly completed her career of nearly four decades as an NBHS English teacher and head of the drama program, which is a shame, because the remarkable story of Cindy’s part in the revival and renaissance years of the NBHS drama club is pretty, well, dramatic. She faced some very high bars from the start, but looking back, Cindy says they helped bring out the best in her students and community supporters.

Starting without a Stage

Cindy first joined the NBHS English department in February 1984, after a coveted teaching spot opened up due to a resignation. She’d been looking for a teaching job for four years, so when a neighbor tipped her off to the NBHS opening, Cindy jumped at the chance to apply—once she figured out how to find North Branford.

“I didn’t know where North Branford was,” says Cindy, with a laugh. “I grew up in Windsor, and I lived in New Haven at the time. I knew Branford, I knew East Haven and all the towns around [New Haven], but I didn’t even know North Branford existed!”

Luckily for North Branford, Cindy found her way to NBHS and interviewed, quite successfully, for the job. But there was a catch or two.

“The principal that hired me basically made my hire contingent upon my reviving the drama club. He wanted a drama program at the school,” says Cindy. “And when he called to offer the job, I got super overwhelmed right from the start, because he said, ‘You know, we don’t have an auditorium. You’re going to have to do this in the gym.’”

That gave Cindy more than just a little pause. She turned down the job. That is, at least she tried.

“I had been a theater major in college, so I had the background, but I had never directed a play before. I was mostly into acting,” she says. “And so I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I actually called back the next day and I said, ‘I can’t take this job.’ I turned the job down, after looking for four years. I was kind of petrified of this concept of trying to put together a major production in a gymnasium that wasn’t equipped—no lighting, no sound; there wasn’t even a stage. There was nothing.”

If someone was writing the book for this story, the line Cindy heard next is one she’s never forgotten, and she’s glad she listened.

“The principal called me back later in the day, and he said to me, ‘If you don’t take this job, you’re going to regret it the rest of your life,’” Cindy recalls.

That call to action, and the promise of some much-needed technical assistance from her husband, Robert, was enough to galvanize Cindy to take the job.

“My husband had a lot of technical theater experience, much more than I did. So I said to him, ‘If I’m going to do this, you’re going to need to help me.’ And he agreed to help me. And so I called the principal back and said, ‘I’ll do it, but you’ll have to allow me to bring my husband in to the do the technical aspects, because there’s no way I’m going to do this by myself.’ And he agreed. So that’s how we started. And it was grueling,” she says.

Building a Program

The NBHS drama program had been dormant for a few years when Cindy came on the scene. Before that, it had been run by several different leaders.

“Other people had run it in the past, but it had always changed hands relatively frequently,” she says.

Even though she was starting up the program after a gap of a few years, Cindy managed to have her first NBHS production up and running by the next school year, and in impressive fashion.

“I started my job at the school on Feb. 1, 1984 and we did our first production in 1985—and we had full sets from the start,” says Cindy. “The first show I did was comedy called Never Too Late and we had an actual box set.”

What makes that all the more remarkable is that, in the beginning, Cindy and co. were given just one week to build their show into their performance space.

“We literally had seven days to move everything into the gym, get it all set up, and then we had to break it down on Sunday, so that on Monday morning they could start their gym classes again, or their sports practices, or whatever else was going on,” says Cindy.

That didn’t stop Cindy from sticking with her vision to always create a full theater experience for her students and audiences.

“We went quite elaborate. We had beautiful unit sets,” says Cindy. “The second year, we did Dracula, which was also a non-musical with special effects and you name it. It was awesome.”

By year three, the NBHS drama program’s beloved musicals started up, with Cindy’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

“And then from there we had several musicals, and I had two babies in the interim,” says Cindy. “So the year that my babies were either in utero or born, we tried to switch things up and simplify so I could still do the program. But all my kids grew up in it. They were all around it.”

Cindy’s eldest daughter, Chelsea, was about two years old when her mom started out at NBHS, followed by middle daughter Julia and youngest, Robyn. While her kids sometimes filled in as extras in NBHS drama production scenes through the years, it was Robyn who really caught the theater bug.

“In many regards, she’s the one who picked it up full time,” says Cindy, who went on to be assisted by Robyn, as an adult, with her more recent NBHS musicals.

Earning New Spaces

Under Cindy’s leadership, the NBHS program flourished through the years, earning new spaces for the annual productions.

“As time went on, we moved out of the big gym into the small gym, which is now the Wellness Center, and we did all sorts of things to fix it so that it was easier for us to be in and out of there,” recalls Cindy. “We installed curtain tracks in the ceiling and we had curtains made. We had a collapsible stage that was purchased for us, that was set up and we’d extend it with wooden platforms. We kept adapting the space.”

The effort also helped Cindy to instill a work ethic and appreciation for theater in her students that can only come through hands-on experience.

“It was just a totally different experience for the kids in those days; where they just had so much appreciation for the fact this was something you had to work hard for,” she says. “You couldn’t just walk in the room and flick on the lights and have this beautiful stage available to you. You had to build it all, from the ground up...The lessons were phenomenal.”

Also helping to bring up the lights were the parents, community organizations, and businesses that pitched in with hands-on help and countless contributions.

“It’s really an amazing story of the kids involved and we had the mamma and papa organizations that we started, and we had so many willing volunteers in the parent realm who would come in and help us do this herculean task of putting up a set and building everything and taking it out of there and putting it away,” says Cindy. “There are lifelong friendships that we made with people in the community.”

That support also helped to create a movement in town that was finally successful in bringing about the construction of the present-day auditorium on the school campus, which opened in 2003.

“That auditorium was hard fought and hard won, and it was a grassroots movement,” says Cindy. “It came from the performing arts department, between the music department and the drama club and theater arts...It was parents and organizations in town and business people who, seeing that the programs were growing and developing, really pushed to finally, finally get an agreement to build that auditorium, after many years of effort.”

A Pandemic Scene Stealer

In March 2020, Cindy, Robyn and the student cast and crew of Mamma Mia! were rehearsing in the NBHS auditorium, just weeks away from showtime, when the pandemic brought down the curtain.

While Cindy was considering retirement as far back as June 2019, she’d decided to continue her role at NBHS for the 2019-’20 school year and was even considering staying for ‘ 2020-’21. But then came COVID-19, and after many weeks of wondering whether the show would go on—and finally announcing it would not—Cindy also made the decision that she’d retire’.

“A series of things happened,” Cindy says of her NBHS career’s quiet end. “Probably most significantly was the shutting down of the school and COVID-19, and being 65 at the time...I couldn’t visualize myself going back into the classroom. It was already in my mind that I wanted to retire, and that just pushed it.”

For Cindy, the saddest note of her final year of teaching and leading the NBHS drama program was that so many milestones were being missed by her students.

“The whole thing was very, very difficult,” says Cindy. “The way things were, no one was ever really saying to tell the students, ‘You’re not doing the show.’ It kept being, ‘...maybe we’ll come back.’ It was really after the announcement the governor made saying the schools would remain closed as of May 20. It wasn’t until that announcement that I actually told the kids the show wasn’t going to happen. I think, by then, they’d figured it out anyway—they pretty much knew.”

Looking back, there was a bit of closure, she adds.

“We were 2 ½ weeks away from production,” recalls Cindy. “It was just so sad. We had our last rehearsal, and it was during our rehearsal that we got a notice saying school was closing that Monday. In some ways, it was really cathartic, because the kids really rallied to that, in singing and dancing and doing all their last things. They put all their hearts into it, in a big way. But then, that was it. The doors closed and we didn’t come back.”

Like all district faculty and students, Cindy switched to remote education for the rest of the year. It was with that distance between them that Cindy had to let her co-workers and students know she’d be retiring in June.

“It was not exactly what I had envisioned as going out the door. But I made the best of it, the best I could,” says Cindy.

Closing such a long and storied chapter in the history of the NBHS drama program and ending her fulfilling teaching career was hard for Cindy. But she was even more concerned about how students were dealing with the many changes, adjustments, and losses of special high school experiences due to the pandemic.

“It was very hard for them,” says Cindy of her drama kids. “I wrote them a nice letter and I tried to be supportive and encouraging and say to them you’ll perform again—the lights have dimmed, but they’ll be on full again. You just have to keep that hope alive. And I do believe that we will.”

Continuing Arts Support

In fact, Cindy has continued to support the arts at NBHS and in her hometown, East Haven, during this difficult time. An East Haven resident since 2001, she joined East Haven Arts Commission (EHAC) soon after it was reconstituted in 2009 and has been its chair since 2012. Cindy has helped EHAC develop virtual arts interactive programming during the pandemic. Cindy and Robyn, who also volunteers with EHAC, have been working together virtually to assist NBHS students with their drama dreams this year.

“Robyn and I have taken a stipend position to run the drama program again,” says Cindy. “At the end of last year, when everything was tying up, we said that we would be willing to come back.”

Their idea is to continue the work started last year with Mamma Mia! and Cindy says nearly all of the students involved in last year’s show and who didn’t graduate have expressed interest.

“We’re in a holding pattern at the moment. We’ve met with the kids a few times virtually, letting them know what we’d like to do is perform some version of Mamma Mia! if we can,” says Cindy.

Production-wise, things are “still a bit up in the air right now,” so all Cindy can currently share about the potential for a 2021 NBHS live performance of Mamma Mia! is that “if anything does happen, it will be very, very, near the end of the year. And if not, well, I think we’re going to try to find something else to do with them, even if it’s something online,” says Cindy.

As for whether Cindy may return in 2021-’22 to assist the NBHS drama program, that’s still up in the air, too.

“I haven’t decided that yet, because I don’t know what kind of turn my life is going to take,” she says.

Cindy’s excited to be scheduled to receive her first COVID-19 vaccination shot, and looks forward to “coming out of quarantine” in the near future. Right now, she’s spending time with her grandkids and enjoying life with her husband, who’ll retire in March 2022.

While she’s been retired from her NBHS career for several months now, Cindy knows she’ll always be glad she heeded the words that inspired her to take the job more than 36 years ago. She especially doesn’t regret taking on the challenge of reviving the NBHS drama program, and has loved sharing in the successes through the years.

“I feel very fortunate to have been a member of the faculty in North Branford at NBHS,” says Cindy. “Sometimes I think of North Branford, the community and the schools, as almost a well-kept secret—you know, the fact that I didn’t even know where it was! And when I got there, just the support [from] the kids, the families. It’s a wonderful place to teach, and a wonderful place to be involved in something like drama, because the community is just phenomenal.”


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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