Ruthie Pincus describes the roots and goals of Stage the Change, an annual theater workshop at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts that grew out of her work in the theater department at Hauppauge High School and that aims to create “global citizens through creativity and performance.” (October 2022) Credit: Barry Sloan; Hauppauge High School Television and Film Department

Ruthie Pincus wants to change the world — not in a research lab or at a think tank, but on a stage.

“We all have the capability to be a person who can make change,” said Pincus, who since 2013 has been the driving force behind Stage the Change, an annual workshop for theater students and other devotees that encourages participants “to become global citizens through creativity and performance.”

Pincus, a Huntington resident who heads the theater department at Hauppauge High School, developed the program after a surprisingly enthusiastic response to a series of vignettes about bullying written by her students in 2012. Developed for middle schools, The Anti-Bully Project was designed to address issues confronting teens, like peer pressure and maintaining healthy relationships.

“We were invited to perform it for a group of adults,” she recalled, and the kids’ reaction was memorable. “I saw the looks on their faces, they were invited to the grown-up table … their faces lit up and they saw the power of what theater brought to the discussion.”
 

In 2013, Ruthie Pincus founded Stage the Change, which is...

In 2013, Ruthie Pincus founded Stage the Change, which is back in-person this year at Tilles Center, on Nov. 18. Credit: Barry Sloan

Expanding the project to issues of gender and race, they were asked to present it at a 2012 Council of New York State School Superintendents conference, which is how Stage the Change began. “The idea came up that we should be teaching other theater departments what we do,” said Pincus, “how to write and create works about social issues that are important to kids.”

She reached out to social justice theater programs in Manhattan, and the first Stage the Change conference happened at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville in 2013, with a keynote speaker from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “We started with 200 kids and about 50 adults from eight to 10 different schools,” she said.

In 2019 (the last live workshop before the pandemic), attendance was up to 850 students and about 100 adults from all over the metropolitan area. The mission of the conference has been constant over the years, presenting keynote speakers who are big Broadway names and hands-on workshops that teach participants how they can become catalysts for change.

CATCHING THE THEATER BUG

Hauppauge theater teacher Ruthie Pincus at rehearsals this month for...

Hauppauge theater teacher Ruthie Pincus at rehearsals this month for “26 Pebbles,” a play by Eric Ulloa that deals with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Credit: Barry Sloan

A native of Texas who spent most of her youth in Cincinnati, Pincus was struck by the acting bug at age 7, when she won a synagogue talent show singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” “That was it,” she remembered. “That was my thing.”

With her parents begging her to be a teacher, she attended the University of Michigan. She had other plans. “I swore I wouldn’t be a teacher,” she said. After getting a degree in theater, she headed straight to New York, hoping to make it as an actor. She spent 10 years “pounding the pavement,” getting work in soap operas and off-Broadway — and in the time-honored tradition, waiting tables, where she met her husband, David.

They moved to Long Island and raised three kids (now all involved in the theater). In the mid-’90s, she was asked by a theater friend to direct some plays at Islip High School, and recognized she’d found a new calling. Once she’d done a few plays, she said, “I realized how much I loved it. I loved teaching just as much as I loved theater.”

She went back to school to get a degree in theater education from Stony Brook University and wrote a curriculum for Islip, but was quickly stolen away by Hauppauge, where she’d been doing some choreography.

Now Hauppauge High is a major supporter of Stage the Change, providing much of the necessary administrative backup. Also keeping things going is Tilles Center, which has housed the workshops from the start.


But it’s Pincus who makes it all happen. A dynamo who doesn’t like to take no for an answer, Pincus has from the beginning managed to attract major names to the one-day workshops. (Be warned, Billy Porter and Lin-Manuel Miranda, she’s coming for you!)

Brian Stokes Mitchell headlines this year’s event on Nov. 18 (he’s also doing two concerts at Tilles the next night). The actor, who won a Tony in 2000 for “Kiss Me, Kate,” is probably best known for singing “The Impossible Dream,” from “Man of La Mancha” — including from his balcony during the height of the pandemic to serenade first responders and medical personnel. He is also one of the founding members of Black Theatre United, formed in 2020 to pursue racial equality in the theater.

Previous speakers have included actor and activist Anna Deavere Smith, composer Jeanine Tesori, a Port Washington native who wrote the music for the shows “Fun Home” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” and actor Jessica Hecht. Tony winner Gavin Creel (“Hello, Dolly!”) spoke in 2019 at the last live workshop before the pandemic shut things down and forced a virtual session in 2021 headlined by playwright Dominique Morisseau.

“This is the kind of theater I’m most excited about,”...

“This is the kind of theater I’m most excited about,” actor Gavin Creel told Ruthie Pincus at the 2019 Stage the Change conference at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville. Credit: Frank Bayer Photography

Though Creel is an enormously talented Broadway star, Pincus said, he was invited to speak in large part because of his involvement with Broadway Impact, a grassroots organization to mobilize the theater community around marriage equality.

“I had no idea how the government worked,” Creel said, explaining the organization’s beginnings to the crowd in 2019. “I didn’t listen in civics.” But like pretty much every speaker at Stage the Change, Creel’s goal was to inspire. “You’re probably here to connect to other theater nerds,” he told the audience, but “also to connect to something that is bigger than yourself . . . to use our power of music and storytelling to make change in the world.”

That message permeates the program, which includes an array of student performances and hands-on workshops designed to jump start the creative process. “We hope when people walk out of a workshop,” said Pincus, “they will either have begun to develop an idea or learned a method for creating a piece of work.”

And it’s not just for students. Everyone (especially anyone who was ever a theater kid) is welcome. Workshop leaders are all teaching artists, Pincus said, “professionals whose approach to creating art with a social justice bent is something we can all learn from . . . being engaged in a global community is good for everyone.”

This year’s lineup

Participants get moving in a workshop called “Speak Out —...

Participants get moving in a workshop called “Speak Out — Share Your Voice” during a previous Stage the Change conference. Credit: Frank Bayer Photography

Workshops with broad appeal at the upcoming conference include one led by Margarita Espada, artistic director of the Bay Shore-based theater center Teatro Yerbabruja, focusing on the Island’s immigrant population, and another headed by television writer Stan Zimmerman (“Golden Girls,” “Roseann”) about his play “Right Before I Go,” which deals with breaking the silence about suicide.

Jim Hoare, vice president of Theatrical Rights Worldwide who has presented workshops at Stage the Change for all nine years, will lead a session on writing for the stage and screen with a social voice. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is to inspire young writers to discover their voice. The best way to be a writer is to keep writing and not give up.” Some great advice from his 2019 workshop: “Not everyone is going to love what you write ... it’s OK to fail.”

The conference, he said, is a place to open minds — for all involved. “I’m fully aware,” he said, “that there are students sitting in front of me who are more talented and more intelligent than I am. They’re just younger.”

Pincus also calls on former students to get in on the act. Hauppauge graduate Tom Kirdahy, a Broadway producer, introduced his husband, the late playwright Terrence McNally, at the 2017 conference. And 2015 graduate Billy Reece, a musical theater writer whose show “A Musical About Star Wars” played off-Broadway before he even graduated from Fordham University, conducted a workshop called “Headlines Into Punchlines” in 2019, with participants writing short scenes based on current events (President Joe Biden came up frequently, along with vape flavors and plastic straws). Reece is missing this year’s conference, but only because he has a great gig in Italy working on a show for a new cruise ship. He promises to be back for the 10th anniversary next year.

He talks about Stage the Change with an obvious sense of pride, having been one of the participants in the bullying project that started it all.

“It’s so thrilling to have been part of that inaugural vision,” he said. The event shows that “we can all be social activists if we put a little work into it,” said Reece, “if we open our eyes and take our blinders off and see the work we do can matter. Our voices deserve to be heard.”
 

Students from North Babylon High School perform at Stage the...

Students from North Babylon High School perform at Stage the Chance in 2019. Credit: Frank Bayer Photography

Taking it on the road

Last summer, Pincus took Stage the Change on the road, doing a weekend workshop in Bend, Oregon, after a participant in the 2014 conference started working at the Tower Theater there. That’s happening again this spring, but for Pincus it’s just a start. She envisions regional conferences all over the country, along with ongoing programs in Long Island schools, and a touring company or festival of works created by program participants.

That kind of growth will require some serious fundraising, the goal being to hire a paid staff — at the moment, everything is done by volunteers with a budget that comes from donations and grants. It’s daunting, she acknowledges, but anyone who knows Ruthie Pincus has faith she’ll make it happen. As her former student Billy Reece puts it, “She is beyond inspiring. She’s her own verb.”

This year's Stage the Change  

A dancer from Urban Bush Woman leads “Dance for Every...

A dancer from Urban Bush Woman leads “Dance for Every Body,” a workshop that will be repeated this year — and no dance experience is required.  Credit: Frank Bayer Photography

WHAT Stage the Change, a one-day workshop for students and adults with guest speakers Stan Zimmerman and Brian Stokes Mitchell, includes workshops such as Telling Your Story, Staging a Flashmob and Dance for Everyone as well as performances by student theater and dance companies.

WHEN | WHERE 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 18, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

INFO $12 for students, $35 for adults (breakfast and lunch included); details and registration at stagethechange.org.