Not long before the show, the actors gathered backstage to get hyped with the usual chant: “Ooh, I feel so good, like I knew I would.” They yelled it at the top of their lungs, they whispered it and they turned to hear it pronounced by the 77-year-old woman standing to the side of the room. Then Laura Rosberg joined the circle of students in costume for the closing night of Oliver! “What a hell of a run,” she said. “And I’m talking about this show. I’m not talking about 44 years.”
That’s how long she has worked at GDS, directing some 100 productions while building a theater program known for its creative boldness, its empowerment of students and—though Rosberg shuns attention—its inimitable director. Among the saddest parts of retiring, Rosberg told the actors, was that she would not get to continue to watch them grow. It was difficult to follow the instruction she had just given: “No tears are allowed. No crying in baseball.”
It’s a good thing that, in the words of the character who infamously denies Oliver Twist more food, crying “washes away the face and exercises the eyes.” Tears flowed liberally on Saturday, as the musicalized story of an orphan lacking a constant home capped off the career of a woman who has provided one to generations of technicians and actors in a program that became a renowned and reliable hallmark of GDS.
At the end of act two, amid a roaring standing ovation for the full company assembled onstage, Rosberg walked down one of the two elevated runways to stand with her students, prompting chants of “Laura, Laura, Laura” from the company and the crowd. Jason Strunk, the performing arts department chair, left the spot where he conducted the musical’s orchestra to address Rosberg through a microphone.
“Thank you for creating beautiful works of theater in this space and for this school for so many years. Thank you for inspiring countless artists who have gone to work in the highest parts of our fields,” Strunk said. “And thank you, most of all, for being a mentor and a friend, an incredible colleague to us. We love you so much.”
After over 30 seconds of continuous applause, Strunk pointed the mic to Rosberg, who joked, “But I have a very loud voice, you know that.” Her hands full with bouquets of flowers, she continued, “It’s been an incredible 44 years.” Rosberg asked for the alumni in the audience to stand, so everyone could “see the people that go back generations.” One shouted, “The class of ’91 loves you!”
Already, messages of gratitude from numerous other alumni have poured into her inbox in recent weeks, Rosberg told the Bit. And, to celebrate Oliver!’s opening on Friday, April 21, members of the cast and crews, and even Rosberg’s performing arts department colleagues, dressed in her classic outfit—dark pants, white shirts, pearl necklaces.
But it was on Saturday that the emotions accompanying her momentous departure crystallized, as the final performance of her final production marked more concretely than anything before what several students called “the end of an era.” For students involved in the show, it was a long day, with almost 12 hours spent at school. There were the time-honored traditions and the normal tasks of preparing for and wrapping up a show, but also special tributes to commemorate the retirement of one of GDS’ longest-serving employees.
Students first gathered at noon in the Internet Cafe to honor the technical crews and faculty in a custom called Schmaltz. Among the gifts Rosberg received were a sash declaring her “officially retired” and a pot of artificial orchids whose petals were covered in students’ signatures. She told the students to focus foremost on nailing their show. “Thank you, everybody, and let’s go to work,” Rosberg said through tears, as the students got up. “Let’s go, let’s go!”
It was lost on few people at school on Saturday, though, that they were present for more than a regular closing night. Nick Serbu, a trumpeter in the 15-member orchestra, told the Bit he had been aware of Rosberg’s reputation before being hired for the Oliver! gig, his first at GDS, and considered it “a privilege to know that I’m a part of her big last experience here.” Jim Mahady, a GDS acting teacher who retired in 2020, said he traveled from Indiana because he could not miss Rosberg’s final show.
And as students moved through their routines, conversations during lulls in activity sometimes turned to the pivotal moment in which the theater program finds itself, anticipating a new director just as a confluence of changes have constrained Rosberg’s valedictory season. Senior Tenaya Lin, a scenic designer for Oliver!, summed up the pervading question: “What’s going to happen when Laura’s gone?”
The process of hiring a new part-time theater director is underway. About 40 applications have rolled in since GDS and its headhunting firm, Carney Sandoe & Associates, started publicizing the job opening a few weeks ago, according to Strunk, who reads every candidate’s materials and has spoken with many of them over the phone during Oliver!’s run. Strunk said the applicant pool includes alumni, who Rosberg and some students have said might be best to carry on the unique program.
In an interview with the Bit on Thursday, Rosberg said she plans to come to school infrequently for the rest of the school year, with little work left but to clean out her office. She has arranged to begin in May consulting for a developing theater program at a decade-old school in New York—“something to begin to break the umbilical cord” connecting her and GDS, Rosberg said.
Who’s the mother in that metaphor? “I don’t know, but we’re pretty attached.” Rosberg, who has called the theater program her “baby” and been seen as an almost maternal figure by numerous students, nonetheless fell back on her typical modesty. “I guess GDS gets to be the mother,” she said.
Once audience members left, the work of deconstructing, or striking, the set—and organizing costumes, lighting equipment and other materials—began in earnest. Saturday’s performance was scheduled for the unusually early time of 5 p.m. to allow more time for strike, which cannot last beyond 11:30 p.m., as per GDS’ zoning agreement for the unified campus. (Before the pandemic, the strike and celebration on closing night would often extend into the early hours of the following morning.)
The company did not need to take down the stage deck, but only moved its runways to extend the main platform, because Fata Morgana, the student dance group, will use the deck for its performances in mid-May, Rosberg said.
She remarked that the dozens of students who contributed to Oliver! had grown into “the most unified company I can remember,” perhaps in part because of her impending departure. She was also pleased with the audience turnout, which varied over the six-show run and peaked in the last two performances. The Black Box was nearly full on Saturday.
While helping put away a set piece in the Black Box’s third-floor storage area, junior Rachel Schneider, who played the role of Nancy, said she worried the theater program will “lose its edge” with Rosberg gone. Rosberg’s initial selection for this year’s musical, Cabaret, was the first show in 44 years to be flatly vetoed by an administrator, when the new high school principal, Yom Fox, intervened last summer. (Fox previously declined to acknowledge or explain her decision.)
Sophomore Henry Cohen, another actor, said he feels as though administrators have shifted their attention towards sports, making GDS more similar to other schools but less focused on the distinctive theater program that attracted him. In the community’s eyes, he said, “theater has turned from the pinnacle of GDS to a side thing that’s sort of cute.” (Fox has said she admires Rosberg and intends to maintain a “strong” theater program.)
Just after 10 p.m., the company moved back to the Internet Cafe, where the usual parent-organized celebration doubled as a sort of late-night retirement party for Rosberg. With the lights down, senior Jacqueline Metzger, a frequent actor who made a brief walk-on appearance onstage in Oliver!’s Saturday performance, offered a toast to “the woman of our lives.” Every person there, Metzger said, was fortunate that Rosberg had touched their life.
Before decamping to the Forum for seniors’ post-show traditions, the students gathered around the table where Rosberg sat with technical director Christal Boyd (another Saturday walk-on), assistant technical director Becca Balton ’10 and history teacher Topher Dunne, who played contrabass in the Oliver! orchestra and once appeared onstage, too. On the table was a homemade Oliver!-themed cake, topped with the number 44.
The company jumped into a rendition of part of “Be Back Soon,” a song from the musical by Lionel Bart. And when we’re in the distance, you’ll hear this whispered tune: So long, fare thee well. Pip, pip, cheerio! We’ll be back soon. The students, save the seniors, may be back, but, come the fall, Laura Rosberg will not.