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Debbie Volain is retiring after having been actively involved in North Haven’s theater scenes for more than two decades. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Volain )
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Debbie Volain has created her last set for productions at North Haven High School and North Haven Middle School as, after more than two decades of service, she is giving up her volunteer work to spend more time with her grandson Ethan and soon-to-be born granddaughter. Unfortunately, Debbie’s last creation, the set for Once Upon an Island at the middle school, didn’t get its time to shine.
“Thursday night [March 12] we finished building the set and Friday [March 13] at noon, they closed school—all of our tools are still there,” says Debbie. “I was hoping we would be able to do it, maybe in the fall, but it doesn’t look like it. It’s sad because I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Debbie is hoping that the group will be able to gather in the summer to take care of loose ends like refunding costume fees, ad book sales, and ticket sales, as well as say goodbye. It is not just the middle school students, though, as many in the high school assist with the middle school play.
There are many students with whom Debbie began working in 6th grade who continued through high school and beyond. Debbie has worked with countless students over the years as she have been involved with the middle school for 24 years and the high school for 20 years with 44 productions through the school, plus others through theater organizations outside of school.
One of her prized possessions is a scrapbook that was made for her years ago that has pockets for each show’s playbill, which every cast member signs.
“I have a signed book from every show and even though there were a few repeats—we did Wizard of Oz four times and Annie three times—each was different because it was a different group of kids with different personalities,” says Debbie.
Though Debbie enjoyed watching theater performances in the past, she had never been involved in any behind-the-scenes work. Her older son, David, who is now 32, was in North Haven Middle School Drama Cooperative’s show.
“He came home and said, ‘Mom we need props. Can you help?’ and it just kind of expanded,” says Debbie. “Ed Handy and Patty Avalone were principals when they started it. When I volunteered, he wasn’t letting us go.”
Over the years, Debbie’s duties expanded from gathering props to eventually designing the entire set. She notes that while she didn’t have much experience, there were several people who helped her learn the ropes.
“Ed Handy gave me a lot of guidance and advice, and George Kulp, who has a small theater company in New Haven, also gave me a lot of guidance,” says Debbie. “My father was still alive when I started and he was a carpenter and would show me different things. Other than that, it was trial and error.”
Debbie has learned a lot over the years and has taken part in some challenging builds with the most difficult set to build saved for last with the high school’s February production of Phantom of the Opera. Her favorite set, though, was Les Miserables, as it “was simple but had a lot of character to it.”
Even though Debbie heads up the set-building, she works closely with the crew. She particularly enjoys the process of deciding what the crew will build and seeing it come to fruition.
She and the crew would read through the scripts and then brainstorm ideas. They also watched the actors rehearse to understand the movements on stage and how to best place set pieces, and how things will be moved on and off stage.
“Watching it go from nothing on paper to develop its own personality is great,” says Debbie, who works as a bookkeeper for her husband Dean. “Each director has their own idea and you get to design and create with the cast and crew’s personalities. The whole idea is to let the kids be the creators of it.”
Among those students who started in 6th grade and continued throughout high school were her two sons, David and Aaron, who also continued theater in college.
The experience not only gave her a common bond with her sons, but many other students over the years. After graduating, there were times Aaron was able to return to help on a show and Debbie has had other students return to help after graduation as well.
“It was nice to be there with [my sons], but it’s a fine line because you’re involved, but you want to let them develop their own place in the school, in the show,” says Debbie. “All of the kids come in as 6th graders not knowing anything, and you watch them grow and see their math skills get stronger because they have to use it in setting sets on stage. They become adults right in front of you. I raised two of my own, then I have all these others who are still mine.”
Debbie has seen those she has worked with in the past go on to incorporate what they learned through the theater programs into their lives and careers. She notes that one student has a construction company and another works in lights and sound in New York.
Debbie has also enjoyed meeting other adults through the program as there have been many parent volunteers over the years. While she has given countless hours as a volunteer, she has found it rewarding.
“I’ve met a lot of people I never would’ve met—parents who sew on the side who were wonderful costume designers and those who stayed on for many years after their kids left,” says Debbie. “Other people should just get involved with kids, whether through theater or something else. It’s amazing what they can give to you while you’re trying to help them.”
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