Changes in the Princeton Day School Technical Theater Program


Courtesy of Jeff Van Velsor

Max Difazio, Contributing Writer

Having received many awards and being ranked the number one Performing Arts program in the Northeast by Stage Directions magazine, Princeton Day School’s Performing Arts Department is one of the most acclaimed in the region. Much of this success is due to the incredible behind- the-scenes talent of the tech crew. Unfortunately, this year, the tech crew and the PDS community were forced to say goodbye to longtime technical director Jeff Van Velsor, who, in August, made the decision to leave PDS.

As PDS’s set designer for eight years, Mr. Van Velsor was an integral part of the technical theater program. With his passion for design, he created some of the most memorable sets in a high school theater, or, perhaps, any theater. On Urinetown’s set, for example, the back wall of the theater was strung from floor to ceiling with plastic water bottles. This small detail helped us win one of PaperMill Playhouse’s environmental awards.

My favorite design of his was Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’s collection of TVs and projection screens. The heavy integration of film and technology showed the impact of media in the LA Riots in 1992 and also won PDS an award for Best Use of New Media/Technology from Montclair State University.

“He was one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. He had this strange ability to design really incredible sets on a very tight budget,” said technical director Ben Malone, Van Velsor’s successor. “[Mr. Van Velsor] is a mentor as well as a teacher. He lets the students do the work and that helps us grow and become better,” said Joseph Haggerty ’15. Further, Van Velsor’s leadership has allowed many PDS alumni to attend and rise to the top of some of the best technical programs in the nation.

“My favorite set he designed was The Laramie Project. It was simple and evocative, and it allowed the actors to work physically while also serving as a blank canvas for the story. He also designed the costumes for that show, which turned out to be extensions of the set,” said theater director Stan Cahill. “Jeff helped us turn the program from a loose, shoot-from-the-hip operation into an organized and efficient student theatre production machine. Most schools have technical theater embedded into the curriculum; we were very lucky to have a program that trained young designers and technicians to work safely and efficiently, without the benefit of curricular support. Jeff was great at moving the students into senior design positions and was sure to keep his eye on potential talent at the Middle School level,” Cahill recalled, adding, “While I’m sad to see him go, he left us ready to take our program to the next level. We wish him the best in all his future endeavors.”

As Van Velsor’s successor, Malone has some important shoes to fill. Malone previously worked at McCarter Theatre in Princeton before coming to PDS. He also spent time as assistant technical director at PDS last year under Van Velsor’s guidance, and has already formed a great relationship with the tech crew at PDS. Under Malone, tech crew will surely continue to grow; it started off the year with one of the largest crews to date.

Nevertheless, Van Velsor’s absence will be felt. His elaborate visions and tremendous talent for design, paired with PDS’ talented students, created some of the best high school shows ever produced. To paraphrase Augustus Caesar, he truly “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”