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By Ken Trainor
It must be a left-brain, right-brain thing," says Roger Finnell, by way of explaining the long-running connection between the Fenwick Math Department and the Blackfriars Guild (the school's theater department). First there was Ed Ludwig, math chair, who directed and/or produced the school's three productions each year. Finnell was his assistant director/producer during the 1960s. Other math department instructors have also gotten involved.
Finnell directed the first of his 78 shows in 1971 (he has produced over 100). In 1973, he took over as math chair and moderator of the Math Club and his highly successful Math Competition Team (his voice mail message states: "I'll return your call as soon as mathematically possible"), and on March 27, he'll be taking the juniors and seniors to London for a spring break theater history tour.
And that comes right after the upcoming production of The Wiz, running for two weekends (for the first time in Fenwick's theatrical history), directed by John Paulett but produced by guess who?
So a lot of long days and long nights for Roger Finnell, who is in his 50th year as a Fenwick faculty member. Fortunately, when those long days and nights are over, he doesn't have far to commute. He lives across the street from the school at Washington Boulevard and East Avenue.
His history with the school goes back even further. A 1959 Fenwick grad, he joined the faculty right out of college in 1963 but skipped a year in elementary school, so he was only 20 when Fenwick hired him. That gives you enough clues to figure out his age, which is the only way a math wiz would approve of revealing it.
The Blackfriars Guild has been doing three shows a year for the last half century — a fall play, the Banua musical comedy revue each January (student written), and the spring musical. Finnell mostly produces the shows now, but he returned to the chair in 2012 to direct Anything Goes, the school's 50th anniversary musical.
There's a story behind the name "Banua," by the way. Back in the mid- to late-1960s, Finnell said, Fr. Paul Ryan wanted to give this annual talent show a catchy name. "Banua" is a South African song recorded by the Kingston Trio. It refers to a jail, which may or may not be an editorial comment about school in general. Finnell says the song was performed for the first time at last year's Banua.
And if you're wondering about Blackfriars Guild, the dark garb worn by the Dominicans in England led to the designation "blackfriars." Ed Ludwig figured his actors and crew were learning a craft, so he attached the medieval "guild."
Finnell has his favorite shows. He's done Guys and Dolls four times, and Finian's Rainbow and Anything Goes three times each. "Guys and Dolls is a can't-miss show," he says. "Great story and great music. It's impossible to mess up."
His favorite musical, however, is Les Miserables, which he was finally able to direct three years ago.
"I wanted to do it seven years ago," he recalls, "but we couldn't get the rights because it was playing downtown." All ended well. A few years later, he had a particularly talented group of kids, so he waited until they were seniors to do it.
"It was a terrific cast," he said.
The talent level runs in cycles, he noted, but the program got a big boost when Fenwick went co-ed in 1992. He was an early proponent and thinks the move was great for the whole school, "but it has especially been a boon for theater."
For one thing, he could take on productions with bigger casts, including West Side Story and the aforementioned Les Miz.
The Wiz boasts a cast of 63, plus 37 crew for an even 100. The "urban retelling" of the classic story was slightly amended to take the main character from Oak Park to Oz, and it incorporates video footage shot by several talented students.
Running a high school theater program, he says, is "stressful, but it's also relaxing. You pick shows with good music, then watch the kids develop their talents. It's very rewarding. You stand back and bask in their glory. To see the audience respond is heartwarming."
That right-brain thing again.