by Carrie Ann Salvi
“Five, six, seven, eight” was the refrain heard repeatedly in the Pierson High School auditorium on Tuesday, and probably thousands of other times before that, as Paula Brannon, who has led the school’s musical theater efforts, led students through a rehearsal for the upcoming Sag Harbor Music Festival next weekend.
After 15 years, she will be leaving her post following her last production in April to move to the West Coast to be closer to their children, she explained. Ms. Brannon will remain with the district through the end of next year, and will be instrumental in selecting the next musical theater director, according to school superintendent Katy Graves.
“It is the best job I ever had,” said Ms. Brannon. She had just finished auditions for the fall play as well, after working all day as an accounting clerk for Sag Harbor Village.
“I thought I would stay here until I couldn’t climb those stairs anymore,” she said, “but it is time to hand over the reins.”
The fall play, still to be named, will be produced by Elizabeth Marchisella and directed by Keith Holden, who has been the musical producer almost 20 years.
“Paula is in love with the theater, and brings that love and knowledge to the students she works with. It has been amazing (and at times exhausting) working alongside her these past years. It will be difficult the find someone as dedicated to replace her,” said Melissa Luppi, Ms. Brannon’s partner and producer of middle and high school musicals.
She leaves behind a legacy that includes the middle school theater program, student-directed and design productions, and a performance at Lincoln Center. Some parents have expressed their disappointment that she is leaving after having moved or paid tuition to the district to be part of its theatrical programs.
“We do Broadway choreography for all of our shows,” Ms. Brannon explained. “We hold the middle school to the same high standard that we hold the high school. We have a valid and legitimate program that will reach far beyond here.”
She gave as example two former students currently attending New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, which she said only accepts 10 students, and one at Indiana University, which only accepts 12.
If you figured out the hours she has put in, Ms. Brannon said she has probably made $1 an hour, with two to three hours of chorus of rehearsal a day, preparation before, and set work often ending at 11 p.m. She also works privately with students who want to major in theater.
“If they are going to do this in college, they will need a contemporary and classic monologue, which is Shakespeare, no ifs ands or buts,” she said. Recalling a student who she is sure she will see on Broadway some day, Ms. Brannon said, “We worked every night till 9 p.m. and lunch hours.” The student was accepted to many schools and is now attending James Madison University.
“Paula Brannon has been a brilliant and creative inspiration in the lives of our Pierson students,” said Superintendent Katy Graves. “We are blessed to have her leading our middle school and high school musicals one last year. Our Sag Harbor School family will miss her dearly, but her students will always resonate with the love of theater she instilled in each one of them during her years at Pierson.”
Ms. Brannon has been praised in public since her first direction of “Annie” and just last week, someone told her that they regularly attend her productions and that her contribution is to the community would be missed. The fan, Anne Marshall, then said, “By the way, my son is Rob Marshall, the director.”
“It is kind of apropos that it is the last year the auditorium will be the way it is,” Ms. Brannon said, explaining that ground will be broken for a renovation “the day after we strike our last set.” Rehearsing with a student’s iPod and 3-inch portable speakers, she said that upcoming renovations include a sound system, which the school previously rented.
With parting words to the “awesome students whose talents never cease to amaze me,” she said, “Our journey together may be winding down, but I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of your lives, you will always have a piece of my heart. And I want tickets—front row center—when I watch you all on Broadway!”