For many of the hundreds of people involved with its productions each year, the Bel Air Drama Company has become family.
But supporters of the program worry it’s being torn apart by the reassignment of two of its three directors — Chuck Bowden and Benjamin Smith.
Bowden, with the school system 18 years, and Smith, with the school system for 19 years, are on paid administrative leave during an ongoing personnel investigation, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, said Monday. They will be reassigned pending their administrative leave.
Bowden was on leave effective April 23 and Smith effective May 2, Lader said. She couldn’t say why the pair are on leave or discuss the matter any further because it’s a personnel matter.
Supporters of the Bel Air Drama Company — the theater program at Bel Air High School which includes members of the community who are also involved in its productions — filled the board room of the Harford County Public Schools headquarters Monday night to encourage the board to keep the company intact because of the tight-knit group it is.
“To me, the company means family and inclusion. It means we all have someone to support us,” Lily Ellefson, a member of the student council of the BADC, told members of the board.
Ellefson has wanted to join since she was 7 years old and saw “Phantom of the Opera,” and realized theater was her calling. When she joined the drama company after she reached high school, she received overwhelming support.
“It has given me confidence in my abilities and strength to lead my peers. It has taught me to have strength and believe in myself and others, and taught me every single person is part of something greater,” Ellefson told school board members. “To me, the company means family and inclusion, it means we all have someone to support us.
Kaidan Hetzer is an alumni of BADC and recently finished his first year at University of Maryland. In 10 productions during his four years of high school, Hetzer learned leadership, teamwork and social skills and met people who are his closest friends today, he told school board members.
“Bel Air Drama Company was my favorite part of high school by far,” Hetzer said. “Bel Air Drama Company is an amazing company that has been improving the lives of children for 30 years, only because it is under the supreme direction of Terri Matthews, Chuck Bowden and Ben Smith. These three teachers are the heart and soul of Bel Air Drama Company and without them it may not exist as it does and it may not exist at all.”
Angleina Massinni has been involved with BADC for four seasons and has found a new passion in technical theater, something she is strongly considering pursuing as a career.
Besides the practical impact, the company has had an emotional impact on Massinni.
“Without hesitation, this program has taught me the meaning of family. The support system I have found within the drama company, thanks to the camaraderie these men have fostered is a testament to their selfless nature as they devote year after year to creating and preserving this haven for their students,” Massinni said. “They have created a home for every student, regardless of background, setting an example of acceptance and altruism for all they interact with.”
Nine-year-old Siena Bauer said her experience with BADC was amazing and as soon as she walked through the doors she was welcomed.
“They always support me in everything I did, especially Mr. Chuck and Mr. Smith, they always loved me and I want to thank them a lot,” Bauer said.
She called BADC her second home. “I loved being there. Whenever I was there I just felt like that’s my place, that’s my home,” Bauer said.
Renee Duzan, representing the executive board BADC parent association, said volunteers work countless hours behind the scenes because they have seen the impact the program and its directors have had on their children and other children.
The Bel Air Drama Company has built “quite a legacy” over the last 30 years that has benefited the entire community, and it would be a “great loss” to the community and the school if the program were disrupted.
“The company is not strong coincidentally or accidentally, on the contrary, it is under the extraordinary leadership of our directors that this program has evolved into what it is today,” Duzan said. “We want to see this extraordinary leadership team say in place and continue to do the work they have done with excellence together for over two decades.”
Bowden and Smith are not only vital to the drama company, but to Bel Air High School as well, Hariana Sethi said. Bowden knows every crevice of the school theater and Smith is the senior class advisor and in charge of graduation.
“They play vital roles everywhere and it’s important to keep them there,” Sethi said.
They have also helped her achieve the three things listed in Harford County Public Schools lobby: inspire, prepare and achieve.
“They have inspired me with their determination, they have inspired me with their connections with students, they have inspired me with their selflessness. They’ve prepared me for the real world, to be graceful in rejection and to work hard and get what you put in,” Sethi said through tears. “And they’ve helped me achieve so much. So please, please listen to our stories and listen to the things they have to say because they impact so many students and to lose them would be a very big loss to Bel Air High School.”
Ever since she saw BADC perform “Les Miserables,” middle-schooler Emma McElwain has wanted to perform on the Bel Air High School stage.
It was one thing she was looking forward to in high school, “to make friends and a family,” she said.
McElwain said she struggles with anxiety and has a difficult time socializing and making friends.
“Judgment is awful for kids, especially growing up and going through a tough time,” she said. “The theater company creates family for people to stand by each other and just love one another.”
That that opportunity could be taken away from her “is awful.”
“Now that family is being torn apart,” she said. “I hope we can see the light at the end of the tunnel through this issue.”
Board President Joe Voskuhl said that as a board, there is nothing the members can do because it’s a personnel matter.