Amplifying the arts: Drama Mamas fundraising to make sure K Central stage voices are heard

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — You’re on stage in front of a large audience, about to sing your big number in a musical. You hear your music cue and you start singing your heart out. Suddenly — panic! 

Your microphone is cutting out. It stutters for several seconds, then dies. You finish your song appearing to be unfazed — because you’re trained to do that. Really you just want to cry.

It happens. It happens too often in stage performances at Kalamazoo Central High School so a group of parents and students intends to stop it. They’re raising $10,000 to buy new microphones.

Courtesy A scene in “Peter and the Starcatchers"“One of the biggest frustrations over the last several years for the kids has been the lack of good microphones,” says Chrissy Westbury, whose daughter will be a senior this fall. “The way musicals are performed now with a band and in auditoriums the way that they’re set up, anybody that’s got a solo or lines really has to be miked or they can’t be heard.

“The choir program has a few of the microphones that attach over the ear and have body packs that are about 20 years old. We have eight and seven of them work almost all the time. We usually end up needing between 14 and 20 microphones for a show. For the last few years, we have rented them but the rental ones are always subpar. 

CourtesyStudent actors in “The Lightning Thief”"Last year we had this student who had this incredible solo — just knocked it out of the park every night. And it was an important scene to explain what was happening in the show. And in every single performance, her microphone went out.

“How disheartening that is for the kids who, say, have a 30-second solo and the microphone goes out for it. That was their moment that they worked so hard on — and nobody hears it.”

Denise Sanchez, the mother of the girl whose microphone failed constantly, says, “Her family came to see her and then they were like, ‘We couldn’t hear her at all. Why couldn’t we hear her?’ They constantly were asking me, 'Why couldn’t we hear her?'  And I’m like, ‘It’s her mic. I’m sorry, I don’t do tech for the show but if I could I would allow you to hear her very plain and clear.’”

CourtesyJulie Pellegrino-Hartman, Choir and Musical Theater Director at Kalamazoo Central High SchoolJulie Pellegrino-Hartman has been Kalamazoo Central’s choir teacher and director of musicals since 2021. “It’s a huge issue and you know that the audience is missing part of the story, an essential part of the story for their understanding of the plot, and unfortunately we have run into that pretty much every year,” she says. 

“The amount that we’ve been paying to rent microphones has been over $3,000 per year. So we’re looking at that over a multiyear period — if we spent about the amount of money we would spend for three years of rentals, we could purchase enough mics that we would not need to rent anymore.” 

More than 50 KCHS students are helping to raise money. Each has been asked to seek at least $10 from 10 people.

Westbury says, “This summer a few things we’re doing to get the word out include one day a month that we’ll be at Lunchtime Live! in Bronson Park passing out flyers and talking with people about both the fundraiser and the fall show, the 'Chicago' teen version. We’re letting people know about the incredible work the KCHS Performing Arts is doing.

“We’ve also looked into different grants and a lot of them we’re not eligible for because we are sort of this grassroots group of parents trying to raise money for the school so we don’t have any official standing to be able to reach out to different granting organizations."

Courtesy Kalamazoo Central High students in a performance of “High School Musical”Kalamazoo Central’s administrators would like to help but the school budget simply can’t accommodate the cost.

Westbury’s daughter, Astrid, says, “The thing about high school theater is that we want shows that have bigger casts and bigger ensembles so more people have more opportunities to have lines and have singing parts.  

"If we don’t have a good amount of mics then we have to constantly switch mics between people. Sometimes it’s just impractical to switch mics, causing some people to not have one for their lines. And if they’re not the greatest at projecting, they just get lost in everything that’s going on at the time. And so vital plot information can get lost.”

Fundraising committee members include (from left) Chrissy Westbury, Jayne Fraley-Burgett, Katie Clarke, Lydia Fink-Cox, and Denise Sanchez.Chrissy Westbury describes the agony felt when a major glitch occurs in a musical or play: “We’re (parents) getting them to rehearsal and picking them up from rehearsal, and we know how exhausted they are when they come out of rehearsal. They’re there five nights a week, hours and hours and hours of rehearsal for eight weeks, at least. 

"They put in so many hours on top of their school work and it’s always at the end of the trimester, the musical is, and so they are working their butts off trying to learn this musical and put on a great show while studying for finals and staying on top of everything else. 

"A lot of the kids have jobs. These kids work so hard, and then to see them get up there for like one lone moment in the spotlight and have it not be heard is just heartbreaking.” 

Mike WenningerStudents soliciting donations during “Lunchtime Live!” in Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park on June 14 chat with a woman who contributed. From the left are Astrid Westbury, Aubry Walker, Sappho Slate, and Evangeline Fraley-Burgett.Fundraising will continue until October 1. The group has already raised half of its $10,000 goal. That sum will buy 10 of the microphones that are needed. That cost per mic is high because there’s an ear attachment with a long thin tube that puts the microphone by the mouth. That unit is connected to a body-pack transmitter that wirelessly sends sound to a receiver that amplifies it for the audience. This doesn’t come cheap but this kind of microphone is reliable, durable, and professional.

The fundraising volunteers intend to make their campaign enjoyable. As one mother remarked, “We jokingly call ourselves The Drama Mamas — but we have some papas, too.” 

Information about donations is here.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.