A Storied Past Meets an Uncertain Future as Theater’s Rosberg Era Ends

Rosberg speaks during a company meeting for Oliver! in the Black Box. Photo by Olivia Brown.

The actors were rehearsing, the designers were designing and Laura Rosberg was directing—a spring like any other in the past 40-plus years at GDS. One difference: Some administrators, teachers and parents were trying to alter the plans for the production or even shut the show down. It was 2009, and the musical was The Producers, Mel Brooks’ comedy about a plot to profit from a Broadway flop with a show glorifying Adolf Hitler.

GDS was the first high school to win the rights to perform the musical, as far as Rosberg knows. Then–Head of School Peter Branch proposed that the production exclude swastikas, history teacher Topher Dunne recalled, but some Jewish parents defended the satirical use of the Nazi symbol in students’ designs. Rosberg told me that adults unfamiliar with the show met behind her back, some objecting to its caricatured portrayal of a gay director.

But the show withstood the protests and, by all accounts, became a massive success. “It was a huge deal,” Rosberg said in an interview. “And one of the most extraordinary sets on the planet.” 

The actors playing the two scheming producers, Ethan Slater ’10 and Noah Robbins ’09, would go on to land leading roles on Broadway. A Washington Post article about the pair, after SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical opened with Slater as the title character, hearkened back to The Producers and discussed Rosberg’s influence on them. “One of the things that makes her special is her audacity,” Slater told me recently. When the company was eager to produce The Producers unchanged, Slater said, “Laura had our back.”

But Rosberg said the Producers episode pushed her to the brink of wanting to retire. “During that whole episode, I was pretty overwhelmed with the questioning of my judgment and good taste,” she said. “I truly believe we have to give our designers, technicians, actors sophisticated material, and stretch them and challenge them. If you can’t do a show about something that’s real and true and exciting, you don’t have real theater.”

At the end of this school year, Rosberg is retiring—after 44 years and, by her estimate, over 90 shows at GDS. Her final GDS production, Oliver!, opens on Friday, April 21—with the orphan’s journey set not in 1830s London, as in the original Charles Dickens novel and the musical, but in the tenement-filled New York City of the 1890s. Rosberg calls it “Oliver! with a twist.”

Rosberg and the company have tried to avoid thinking about the fact that Oliver! is her last show. To ask participants in the program to explain Rosberg’s role is to encounter a consistent refrain: that Rosberg and the program she has helmed for over four decades are inextricable. “Laura is the program,” in the words of junior Posy Brown, who is playing Oliver Twist and designing costumes.

Of course, the program has relied on a host of other faculty members over the years. Christal Boyd, the technical director, is Rosberg’s continual collaborator in the theater, while Jason Strunk, the performing arts department chair, and Maria Watson, the acting (and sometimes dance) teacher, are the musical’s music director and choreographer, respectively.

As Rosberg has shaped the program, it has defined her career; as some actors and technicians worry about GDS theater without its architect, she is just as afraid of life without GDS theater. “My vision for retirement is a period of utter terror, because this has been my life, my hobby, my family, everything,” she said. “It’s surreal.”

In a tenure spanning two campuses and two departments, Rosberg has fashioned the drama program into a distinctive and dependable constant for a school undergoing dramatic change, a training ground for thespians and theater-makers that has produced numerous successful professionals, and a core feature of GDS’ identity. 

The bulletin board where Rosberg posts news about alumni. Photo by Olivia Brown.

“The theater program at the school, under her leadership, became a signature program that was a major draw for students,” Kate Lindsey, GDS’ former chief financial officer, said in an interview. A theater enthusiast, she often spent time around Rosberg’s productions in over 20 years at GDS, ending in 2009. “People would come see a show and they’d want to be part of the GDS community,” Lindsey said. 

But, in the last year, some hallmarks of the theater program—such as the strike of a production’s set by the company on closing night and Rosberg’s leeway to pursue the challenging shows of her choice—have frayed at the edges. In interviews with the Bit, students and parents described a community on edge about the program’s future under a new director who may have less influence to fend off the growing constraints and an administration that seems to them less supportive of what has historically been among GDS’ crown jewels.

High School Principal Yom Fox, who is nearing the end of her first school year at GDS, said in an interview that she will “be working to ensure that the theater program in its entirety remains strong.”

Rosberg has maintained her typical tranquility, seeking in private to defend the program’s customs yet unwilling to abandon a deep-seated loyalty to the school where she has worked for the vast majority of her adult life. On the record, the director acknowledged and lamented the confluence of marked changes but largely avoided criticizing administrators.

This article draws from interviews with 21 current or former students and colleagues who have worked with Rosberg throughout her time at GDS. Across their efforts to pinpoint what distinguishes her program, two themes emerged—the responsibility placed on student technicians and a tendency to push the envelope with plays and musicals that others might consider too mature for teenagers.

In a sense, Rosberg’s approach boils down to a single overarching attitude: “There’s a real power in taking high schoolers seriously,” Ethan Slater said. “That was the thing that she did so well and that I so appreciated and I think was a big part of the GDS ethos in general.” Now, in the twilight of Rosberg’s career, the theater program has run into forces influencing GDS in general today, from restrictions in line with heightened sensitivity to conditions for the unified campus to oversight by new administrators.

A watchful walk through the high school building offers a tour of GDS theater’s past and present, and of where those two collide. In the first floor hallway, pass by the bulletin board where cast lists have fulfilled or frustrated many an actor’s dreams, then another one strewn with newspaper clippings and email printouts telling of alumni’s creative pursuits. Old production posters hang outside the doors to the Black Box. Perhaps peek inside, unless signage forbids, and see a set under construction or a rehearsal in progress.

On the second floor, posters hang beside the mezzanine door, too. Look into Rosberg and Boyd’s office, near the emergency exits; students might be socializing or collecting props. Take note of the posters and photos filling more walls. Missing from the spot outside the office door on the left—removed, without warning, over the summer—is a photo, with swastikas, from one of Rosberg’s standout shows, The Producers.

A photo of The Producers used to hang under the two photos currently posted to the left of Rosberg and Boyd’s office door. Photo by Olivia Brown.

‘A Rare Spirit’

To students and teachers who don’t know her, Rosberg might be a woman seen in a white buttoned shirt and dark pants—a uniform immortalized in a Washington Post portrait photo that sells for between $175 and $499 from Getty. She might be known for her readings at Christmas assemblies, or for her all-school emails before theater mass meetings, exhorting students, “Bring a friend! Bring a dog!” (She once added the part about dogs to be silly and hasn’t stopped since. Someone once brought theirs.)

To Peter Marks, the Washington Post theater critic and reporter who authored the story about the Producers stars, Rosberg is a known quantity in the D.C. theater scene. “Whenever I see, in a playbill or program, somebody from GDS, I always take note of it,” Marks told me, “because I think, ‘Well, if they were studying under Laura, then they got some real training.’” 

To the many students and colleagues who have worked with her, Rosberg is many things more: a stabilizing force, a quirkily humorous spirit, a director on top of her material, a person to lean on and, perhaps above all, the creator and keeper of a cherished community that has absorbed hundreds of students.

Alexa Stone ’89 was not cast in the first play she auditioned for. But soon, Stone became a regular actor and technician, once starring in a play and designing its sixteenth-century British costumes. Stone would often eat lunch in Rosberg’s office. If anyone forgot food, Rosberg would give them money to buy a slice of deep-dish Armand’s pizza on campus. “She became like our mom,” Stone said.

Rosberg at her desk, some time in the first few years after the move to Tenleytown. Photo courtesy of Alexa Stone.

After graduating, Stone wanted to join friends on a trip to Europe, but her parents weren’t in favor and she was short on cash. Enter Rosberg, with a $200 or $300 loan. When Stone returned and headed to college, she paid Rosberg back by getting a job there—in the costume shop. Stone became a professional costume designer for theater and movies in Los Angeles and now owns a business making belts with pockets. She’s a mom herself and keeps Rosberg posted on her family.

If Rosberg served as a motherly figure in the 1980s, Bryce Savoy ’21, a frequent actor at GDS, said she transmitted “grandma vibes” more recently, as a wise, warm presence who stuck around even as several of his other teachers left the school. (Rosberg is, in fact, a grandmother.)

Rosberg’s start at GDS came in 1972, when she began a one-year stint as an English and drama teacher at the middle school. Then she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for her husband’s post as a law professor, and led a youth theater company there. Rosberg returned to D.C. and got a new job at GDS in 1980, expecting to stay for only a year. 

She initially taught a full slate of English classes while also directing shows. She would eventually develop a course in theater production, now taught by Boyd, and a now-defunct class about directing, in which older students studied techniques, practiced them and regularly attended shows.

Among the job’s gratifying aspects, Rosberg said, is seeing students mature. The program has taken in “a lot of kids who are introverted, a lot of kids who aren’t socially apt,” Rosberg said. “And my thing is always about: Every kid has got something to offer. And even though they may be a horrible brat in ninth grade, I know that if I pay attention to them and treat them with respect, other kids will, too, and they become a part of a community that can’t be beat.”

Rosberg meets with the scenic designers for Oliver! Photo by Olivia Brown.

Cole Wright-Schaner ’19, who played leading roles in several GDS shows, entered high school feeling insecure and had yet to come out as gay. Around Rosberg, he felt comfortable, without pressure to address his sexuality. “In Laura’s presence, it wasn’t about that,” Wright-Schaner said. “It was a time to sort of exist outside of that queer label.”

Senior Grey Papageorgiou, who goes by them and is a lighting designer for Oliver!, said Rosberg makes a point of asking for a “joke of the day” at company meetings, and her brand of humor offers a refreshing reprieve from an often stressful academic environment. “She’s such a rare spirit,” they said. “She wants laughter to be central to what we’re doing.”

Besides its numerous student stalwarts—Rosberg said over 100 students are involved in Oliver!—GDS theater has been a hub of faculty volunteerism. English teacher John Burghardt has advised actors on Shakespeare. Former science teacher Bill George was a frequent guest director. Math teacher Anike Oliver, the freshman dean, has taught students about makeup and danced on stage. And there is not much in GDS theater that Topher Dunne hasn’t done.

Among colleagues with “big personalities,” Maria Watson said, Rosberg is a calm presence, unfazed, with her years of experience, by what may seem like disarray in the process of producing a show. “When everybody else is a little out of control, she just listens,” Watson said in an interview.

For alumni, especially those who work in the arts, Rosberg’s lessons continue to reverberate. Ethan Slater spoke with me from London, where he is filming a two-part movie adaptation of the musical Wicked, playing the character Boq in a cast that includes Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo.

Rosberg and former music teacher Katie Evans visited Slater in his SpongeBob SquarePants dressing room on Broadway. Photo courtesy of Ethan Slater.

Throughout his acting career, Slater has had one reply whenever someone has asked about his approach or work ethic: “I had this great teacher in high school, named Laura, who always taught us not only what to do, but how to take ourselves seriously.”

‘The Heart of the Program’

Rosberg does not talk often to students about the history of her program. But one fixture of GDS theater lore reliably comes up during each show’s run: At “Schmaltz,” the ritual of honoring designers and crews with gifts, Rosberg invariably reminisces about producing shows at the high school’s prior location on MacArthur Boulevard, where one room served as both the gym and the theater. (Rosberg does not recall how the celebration of technicians took on the name of clarified fowl fat.)

Rosberg is one of just five people remaining at GDS who arrived before 1987, while the high school still operated in the building on MacArthur now home to the River School. (The others are Elaine Scott, the senior director of high school admissions; John Burghardt; and history teachers Sue Ikenberry and Nooman Kacem. Kacem taught at the middle school at the time.)

On MacArthur, students would have to move sets in and out each day to make room for sports. Alexa Stone recalled setting up lights on a grid hanging from cables bolted to the ceiling. Sometimes, one of the support bolts on the ceiling would pop out due to the weight—and become a trophy for whoever had braved the grid and caused it to break, according to Stone. When she earned a bolt, she proudly wore it on a necklace “for practically a year,” she said.

Rosberg, center, poses with Stone, right, and another actor. Photo courtesy of Alexa Stone.

Rosberg has made the work of designing and executing each production’s technical components into a major avenue of student participation in theater. Students may join crews for sets, lighting, sound, costumes and makeup and rise to roles as crew heads and designers. “I truly believe they’re the heart of the program,” Rosberg said.

Students also manage the funding for each production through ticket sales, fees for program advertisements (often from parents) and donations that company members are required to collect (ditto). “I care desperately that kids learn about the biz,” Rosberg told me.

The move to Davenport Street brought GDS’ first dedicated black box, located where the admissions office, the workshop and the hallway behind the faculty lounge are now. Kate Lindsey, who helped secure the space, estimated it was about two-thirds the size of the current Black Box, which was created in 2005 during the high school’s major renovation.

A.J. Weissbard ’91 recalled building sets in the era before GDS hired a technical director. “Laura would always entrust the students to be responsible and to take pride in what they were doing,” Weissbard, now a professional lighting designer, said in a virtual interview from Rome, where he was working on lighting a lyric-less opera. He and his peers “took over the theater,” staying late and keeping keys to the building. Weissbard, whose career has brought him to over 50 countries, said he has never encountered a school program with the same freedom for student technicians.

The workshop adjoining the Black Box where students work on sets. Photo by Olivia Brown.

In a lunchtime meeting in the Black Box at the end of January, with over a dozen designers and production administrators for Oliver!, Rosberg began to describe her vision for the show’s atmosphere, with New York City fire escapes, pushcart peddlers and a dreary color palette. She floated the idea of enclosing some of the audience in parts of the stage, asked the group where a 15- to 20-piece orchestra might go and discussed due dates for designs.

Turning, for a moment, to Oliver!’s finances, Rosberg told the assembled group, “It’s going to sell well because people think it’s all peaches and cream.” (Rosberg, to be clear, does not: The document she distributed before auditions says, “Mature themes: abuse, punitive justice, etc.”)

Rosberg has been an actor only on rare occasions, beginning during her childhood in Canada’s Ontario province, where she grew up near Niagara Falls in a family that participated in local theater groups and attended festivals. (Rosberg gained U.S. citizenship only recently, so she could vote in the 2020 elections.) But acting, Rosberg said, generally hasn’t gone well for her. She feels most at home behind the scenes.

“Laura Rosberg is one of the most humble people I know,” Jason Strunk said in an interview. “She hates any sort of limelight. She hates being on stage. She’s just hesitant to be the center of attention.” Case in point: Rosberg was initially loath to do an interview for this article. “She’s really about promoting the talents of the kids,” Strunk added, “and she’s been wildly successful.”

Rosberg insisted to me that she did not want a party to commemorate her retirement or speeches singing her praises. “I don’t need speeches,” she said, chuckling. “My speeches have been these.” From the mezzanine where we sat for the interview in March, Rosberg gestured towards the staircase on the Oliver! set in the works and continued, “This is my speech, okay: coming in here last night and seeing those railings on. That’s all the speech I need.”

The Oliver! set under construction in the Black Box. Photo by Olivia Brown.

‘It Wasn’t Fightable’

If shows are her speeches, Oliver! was not the farewell speech Rosberg envisioned. 

For years, she has wanted to put on Cabaret, according to Maria Watson. The 1966 Tony Award–winning show tells the story of an American writer who visits Berlin in the 1930s, as the Nazis are gaining power, and falls in love with a cabaret performer. “She’s been talking about wanting to do it for a long time,” Watson said of Rosberg.

In 1998, Rosberg directed a production of Cabaret starring Julie Stein ’99, who is now a history teacher and the sophomore dean. The show involved a large projected swastika, Nazi armbands and a striptease, according to Stein. “It was quite risqué for a high school,” she said. “When I tell people in the theater world that I did Cabaret in high school, they’re like, ‘I’m sorry, what high school did you go to?’”

But this year, “Yom just didn’t feel comfortable doing it, for whatever reason,” Watson told me, referring to the principal, Yom Fox. To Watson’s mind, theater based on history can educate actors and audiences alike. “I never understand, especially when you’re in a school, why you would want to shut that down,” she said.

Rosberg speaks to actors during an Oliver! rehearsal. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Rosberg declined to detail her conversations with Fox about the choice of musical, saying she did not want to break confidences. But Rosberg confirmed that this year was the first time in her career that an administrator had outright rejected a show she had selected. “It wasn’t fightable,” Rosberg said, unlike past attempts to interfere with her shows. “It’s disappointing,” she added. “We’ve infantilized our kids, and to some extent our faculty, and made everyone too fragile.” 

The program has long depended on administrators invested in theater, who respected Rosberg’s latitude to choose sensitive content, she told me. “It concerns me,” Rosberg said, “that we may be in an era where we don’t have so many champions as we once did.”

Fox declined to comment on her involvement in the selection of the spring musical. In a statement to the Bit, she said she met Rosberg over Zoom during the summer. “The memory of that conversation starts with a dynamic woman in an oversized white shirt and statement necklace appearing on screen, and in a matter of minutes, I felt we were old friends,” Fox wrote.

Rosberg did not tell the company specifically about the veto of Cabaret, but she has suggested to students that her initial pick had been overruled, according to senior Wesley Brubaker, an actor. Rumors spread in the program, and Brubaker said he has heard conversations among peers who would have preferred Cabaret to Oliver! 

Cabaret is personal for Jason Strunk, who performed in the ensemble of a 2006 Arena Stage production of the musical, under a director who he said reshaped his approach to theater. “I love Cabaret as a show,” Strunk said. “That show was life-altering for me.” He declined to describe his interactions with Fox about the musical and said, “I don’t know the calculus, but I do know this: Entering a new situation, it’s always best to be cautious.”

Boyd said she could understand why a new principal was uncomfortable with a show that would include swastikas. And Strunk and Watson each said the rejection of Cabaret might apply only to Fox’s first year.

Jamie Brown, a frequent parent volunteer in the program whose three daughters have acted under Rosberg, told me that, as a Jew, she considers Cabaret inoffensive and especially well suited to a period of rising antisemitism. Her twin daughters, juniors Posy and Olivia Brown (the latter of whom is the Bit’s visuals editor and took photos for this story), performed in Cabaret for a 2021 summer program with Young Artists of America.

“It kind of breaks my heart that this is her last season and it’s a show that she didn’t pick as her first choice,” Jamie Brown said. “The idea of sanitizing a space completely, where nothing ever makes anyone uncomfortable—it’s really not what GDS is about, or used to be about. And I hope it’s not what it’s going to be about. And it’s certainly not what theater is about or what art is about.”

Outside a door to the Black Box’s mezzanine are posters from The Producers (2009) and Cabaret (1998).

The most prominent example of provocative theater at GDS may be The Producers. The unsuccessful bid to restrain the production in 2009, Kate Lindsey, the former administrator, said, “forced there to be an understanding that theater is an art form, and to try and censor or modify or change a pure art form is a mistake.” In 2019, a decade after The Producers escaped administrative suppression, its leading actors, Slater and Robbins, performed a song from the show at a party for the One GDS fundraising campaign.

This fall, a photo from The Producers that previously hung outside Boyd and Rosberg’s office was gone. It was taken down by an adult who believed its swastikas “would cause discomfort among students,” according to Rosberg, who declined to share further details. Topher Dunne said he found it “strange” to see the photo removed without any discussion.

For the spring of 2018, Rosberg announced to students the musical Spring Awakening, which centers on teenagers who discover their sexuality and involves abusive relationships. However, the then-principal, Katie Gibson, who was in her first year at GDS, spoke with Rosberg about switching to a different musical to avoid controversy. Rosberg believes she could have stuck with Spring Awakening if she wasn’t also eager to stage Floyd Collins.

Rosberg ultimately produced Spring Awakening three years later, in 2021, as the first show performed in the Black Box since the pandemic began, although audiences could see the show only as a video. Last spring, when GDS drew Republican ire during Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation process, the right-wing news website Breitbart claimed that Spring Awakening was part of an effort to press “adult sexual content on children.”

The rejection of Cabaret struck many students and parents as an aberration from the history of Rosberg’s shows. “The school in the past has usually given her a lot of trust in the way that she puts on these shows and deals with the content,” senior Maya Raman, a scenic designer for Oliver!, said, pointing to Spring Awakening. “I don’t think people would have thought she would have gotten overruled like this.”

Rosberg said trends in the outside world affect GDS, too. “I think we’ve become incredibly fearful of taking risks,” she said, a tendency only worsened by the pandemic. “It never dawned on me not to do the most challenging, difficult, most sophisticated shows I could come up with. And I don’t think that’s where we are now.”

In 2014, Rosberg directed The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, a play by Peter Weiss, better known by its short name Marat/Sade, that is often deemed disturbing. Peter Marks of The Washington Post compared it to two productions at local professional theaters, tweeting, “Which here isn’t playing it safe? Arena has FIDDLER, Shakespeare Theatre has AS YOU LIKE IT and Georgetown Day School is doing…MARAT/SADE!” 

The spring 2015 issue of GDS’ magazine, Georgetown Days, quoted Marks’ tweet and declared, “GDS HS theater has never played it safe.” The page’s header made the main point clear: “NOT PLAYING IT SAFE.”

‘The Best Day of the Semester’

The 2018 fall play, Metamorphoses, was performed in a pool built in the Black Box. After closing night, it was up to the company to disassemble the pool. Actors and technicians made a line to scoop water out of it with a bucket, Jamie Brown recollected, and they remained in the building until 3 or 4 a.m.

The set for Metamorphoses. Photo from The Augur Bit’s archives.

While the pool presented special challenges, there was nothing special about the company’s task of deconstructing the set immediately after the last performance, staying at school for as long as it would take. The longstanding custom is called “strike.” After the work was done, the company would stay even later for a party organized by parent volunteers. And seniors had traditions: quick, comical sketches of the show’s plot, a video commemorating the production, speeches, even a post-strike visit to the monuments for sunrise.

Becca Balton ’10, who was hired in the fall to fill the new position of assistant technical director, worked on sets as a student. Balton told me that striking each show’s set helped bring emotional closure at the end of a production. “It was the best day of the semester,” she said. “It was just so magical.” 

But the year before Metamorphoses, while negotiating the zoning agreement that would authorize the new lower/middle school building, administrators unintentionally put the tradition of strike on track to be substantially curtailed. A provision of the agreement forbids on-campus activities after 11:30 p.m., allowing exceptions only “once or twice yearly.” 

There was no freshman lock-in this school year, but another event filled the school-wide cap, along with after-prom to come, according to Lauren Dickert, GDS’ chief of staff. She did not specify what the other event past 11:30 was. Russell Shaw, the head of school, said in an interview that, during the complex negotiations in 2017, the impact the 11:30 closure requirement would have on theater strikes was “nowhere on my radar screen.”  

Shaw said he would eventually wish to pursue adjustments to the policy, including exceptions for strike, but not now, since GDS has been in hot water this year with the eight-member Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, that would need to approve modifications to the zoning agreement. Jonathan Bender, the ANC’s chair, told me via email that he would likely support a revision incorporating an additional two exceptions to the 11:30 rule, but that the ANC would need to see a specific proposal and seek input from residents.

Last school year, COVID rules and snafus made the abnormal strikes unsurprising, students said. But for this fall’s play, The Odyssey, Rosberg told seniors that she had spoken with Fox, Shaw and the security staff in a futile effort to find a way for strike to proceed past 11:30, Raman said. Rosberg told me that only 20 minutes of strike, followed by a party, were allowed in the end. “The kids were devastated,” she said.

Holly Morgan ’14, who worked on the costume crew and as a stage manager at GDS, said in an interview that she heard about the end of traditional strikes while chatting with Rosberg after a performance of The Odyssey. Morgan was disappointed that current students would not get the experience she did. “There’s something that feels a little bit taboo about being able to stay at school till 2 in the morning,” Morgan said in an interview. “It was just pure fun.”

The time constraint on strike has caused practical problems, too: With Boyd out of commission at the time due to an injury, most of the work of deconstructing The Odyssey’s set fell, over the following week, to Balton and an outside stagehand hired by the school. When the work took longer than expected, Rosberg said, “I got my knuckles rapped, because he had to do more hours and charge the school for it.”

Boyd at work in the shop. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Boyd said she had no “attachment to strike” as someone whose job requires her to focus on the safety and logistical aspects of deconstructing the set. “The big advantage of having strike after the show is you have the most hands,” she said, but, in a crowded theater, “sometimes too many hands is too many hands.” Boyd and Balton each said it is possible that students could return another day after closing night to work together on striking the set.

But to students, the old custom of doing the work straight into the next morning carries a special cachet. Sophomore Ava Ginsberg, a head of the costumes crew, said she has heard often about traditional strikes. “Everyone’s just nervous,” Ginsberg said, since the soon-to-graduate seniors are the only students who experienced the prepandemic customs.

Rosberg sees the growing restrictions her program has faced as part of a pattern of increasing bureaucracy at GDS. She has hosted fewer guests, including alumni artists, in recent years because of the cumbersome process required to bring them on campus, Rosberg said. But she painstakingly avoids casting blame and said she wants to close out her tenure with an abiding devotion to GDS.

“I have found Laura to be unbelievably loyal to the administration,” Laurie Kohn, a parent who often volunteers with the program, said. “She has never complained to us, even though it’s clear that there are frustrations.”

Students who participate in theater have taken note of the changes but tend not to raise concerns outside of the program, Maya Raman said. “The general culture among the cast and crew,” she said, “is that we get angry about things, and we talk about it amongst ourselves, but we don’t really address it further with people.” And Rosberg has persevered, “even if not in the capacity that she would want, or really that any of us would want,” Raman said. “She’s our biggest advocate at the end of the day.”

‘Powerful Conversations’

For students looking to act at GDS, the path to a part, at least in a full-length play or musical, has long gone through Rosberg. Actors’ trajectories over four years take many shapes. Some harbor disappointments that their talent never got top billing, while others feel lucky to have ended up with a succession of big roles; others still feel lucky to have had any parts at all. All can agree that relationships with Rosberg are crucial.

“There’s obviously a power difference,” Wesley Brubaker said, “when casting is a lot of your high school experience.”

Junior Rachel Schneider said that Rosberg sometimes seems to form lasting impressions of actors that can shape the roles they receive. “I’ve been a mother in like every GDS show that I’ve done in high school,” Schneider said. The streak ended, after our interview, with Schneider’s role in Oliver!, as Nancy, the antagonist’s lover.

Rosberg posts cast lists on a bulletin board next to the English department office on the first floor. Photo by Olivia Brown.

At the read-through for Oliver!, Rosberg said she gave a familiar talk, acknowledging that some students might be trying to hide their joy while others were upset. “Students are always frenzied about casting,” she said. “I love the puzzle of casting. I don’t like that it makes some people sad.” Rosberg has never given a preference to older students—sometimes irking those who feel deserving of increasingly prominent roles—but she said experience often helps actors improve.

The pandemic hampered students’ ability to gain that wisdom. With school disrupted, the theater program moved through successive production formats: The 2020 spring musical, Matilda, turned into a series of videos with songs. Then a 90-minute Hamlet and the winter one-acts went on virtually, and Spring Awakening was filmed on campus without an audience. Not until last school year did audiences return to the Black Box. And COVID cases in the company delayed Footloose’s opening last spring.

Rosberg is proud of the program’s perseverance through the pandemic, but, she said, “actors don’t have the skills they might have had by junior and senior year, with notable exceptions.”

In the last several years, Rosberg has faced questions from students about the diversity of the shows she picks and her handling of race in the casting process. “There have been some interesting and powerful conversations,” Rosberg said, as students, in her observation, have grown more politically conscious.

Bryce Savoy, who is Black, recalled speaking with Rosberg, along with a group of other, mostly Black students, about those topics, including her approach to casting characters who are related. She seemed to seek actors of the same race, Savoy said, often passing over the small minority of Black actors. He said that Rosberg was receptive to the feedback and explained some past casting decisions.

Watson and Rosberg watch actors during an Oliver! rehearsal. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Soon, someone else will be in charge of casting, and students who remain will have a new person to impress. “When you’re in this theater program you try to build up a connection with Laura,” Brubaker said, but non-seniors may never see the full returns on those investments. “When a new director comes in, you have no clue if they’ll care at all about your past experience, or if that’s the only thing that matters. And I think there is just a little bit of fear in that.”

If actors have long sought to dazzle Rosberg in the hope of scoring a lead role in future shows, some are now looking to a new goal: making her final GDS show a success. “There’s pressure to make it a good last memory of the spring musical,” Schneider said.

‘It’s Hard to Follow an Icon’

Students who have worked with Rosberg in recent years said they at once considered it inconceivable that she would ever retire and yet suspected that the end of her tenure was imminent.

Ethan Slater recalled that, in 2009, the year he starred in The Producers as a junior, Rosberg said she planned to retire—when, she told me, she was exasperated by the attempts to stifle her work. “I was so worried when I thought that she was going to retire before I was done,” Slater said. “I was so relieved when I found out that she was gonna stick it out for one more year.” One became 14—enough time for today’s seniors to ascend from pre-kindergarten.

A wall backstage where alumni have signed their names. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Rosberg has gradually lightened her load, shedding her directing course in 2019 and the duties of department chair in 2021. Since GDS reopened fully from lockdown, Rosberg’s part-time job has involved directing the extracurricular theater program and being an advisor. She announced that she would retire first to her advisees in January. After learning the news, Posy Brown said she spent the day “crying a lot.” Rosberg consoled her and repeatedly checked in.

Before spring break, a slew of job openings appeared on the GDS website—but not one for any role to do with high school theater. Other departments have already hosted candidates on campus. As of April 9, though, Rosberg’s role had yet to be announced online as an opening. Strunk, the performing arts department chair, said it has taken time to craft a job description that fully captures Rosberg’s work, which her successor will take on without teaching any classes. Yom Fox said she anticipates the posting will be made soon.

Strunk expects the program’s reputation to help in attracting candidates. He said he has already heard from “several” people, including alumni, expressing interest in the role. In addition to interviews with administrators and the rest of the department, the top candidates who visit campus will speak with students in the program, Strunk said. He hopes the director will be hired by June.

Strunk looks at Oliver!’s music in his office. Photo by Olivia Brown.

“Laura Rosberg is irreplaceable,” Fox said in an interview. “We’re not going to be able to replicate her expertise or her experience.” Fox said she plans to meet with Rosberg this spring to discuss Rosberg’s legacy and how the theater program will proceed.

Rosberg suggested to me that a former participant in GDS theater might be a good pick. “If you actually do care about the job as it stands,” she said, “an alum is a perfect person.” But Rosberg is not deeply involved in the process of determining her successor, and she does not know precisely how the transition will go. If the hire wants to understand how Rosberg has run things, she said, June could be a suitable time for some training.

Colleagues and students of Rosberg’s, past and present, spoke of a desire for the structure she has built to be preserved, but also of the need to incorporate the new director’s vision. And the restrictions placed on the program recently have raised concerns among many students that the program will only continue to slide from its prepandemic ways.

Junior Joshua Reynolds noted that Rosberg’s musical choice was overridden even though she is among the school’s longest-serving teachers. “A newcomer who doesn’t even have as much GDS legend status as Laura does now could potentially be even more limited in their show choice,” Reynolds said, “which could also cause us as a theater company to be less ambitious.”

Strunk feels the weight of finding a suitable successor to Rosberg but is not concerned about the program’s future. “It’s hard to follow an icon,” he said, but “we can’t lose our footing in this program. So many students rely on this program.” Boyd said she feels a responsibility to help maintain the program Rosberg molded while following the next director’s plans. She, too, is unworried about how the program will emerge from the transition.

Rosberg’s shoes. Photo by Olivia Brown.

This spring’s alumni reunion, from May 5 to 7, will involve an event honoring Rosberg’s career. The details of the event have yet to be finalized. Rosberg, meanwhile, has few definitive plans for retirement. She and her husband will travel and see family in Canada, Singapore and Italy. The couple will keep their homes in both D.C. and New York. “I’ll see a lot of shows,” Rosberg said. “I’ll read the stack of books sitting beside the bed. But that’s about it for now.”

Rosberg’s mother died in August. Her mother had a theory that people get stuck seeing themselves at a certain age. For Rosberg, that age is 50. “I viewed myself as much younger than I am,” Rosberg, who is 77, said. “I finally confronted my own mortality and realized that the ability to do stuff that we love to do—primarily travel—there’s not much time left to do it.”

Rosberg will keep up her close relationships with some GDS colleagues, but only off campus. “Visiting school would be painful,” she said, “because I will miss it and I will have no control. I will have handed my baby to somebody else and they’ll have made it their own.”

Watson said she expects the new director—someone young, she thinks—to bring a new point of view to the theater program. “You don’t want somebody to come in and do the exact same thing. Change is good,” Watson said, but “you can’t come in and change everything right away.”

Was that what Fox, by rejecting Cabaret, had already done? “Maybe,” Watson said, beginning to laugh. “I have to teach.” The first period of the day was about to begin. The time was up.

The wall beside the main entrance to the Black Box. Photo by Olivia Brown.