2021 Educators of the Year: Dena Tishim and Laura Nitti

The Riverhead Blue Masques had reached “tech week” in March 2020 when final preparations were underway for their ambitious production of “Les Misérables.” Ethan Lucas, then a junior, was cast in a lead role as Jean Valjean.

“It was the role of my life and something that I really enjoyed doing and I got to grasp that character really well,” he said.

The global pandemic soon swept across the region, shutting schools and beginning the unprecedented transition to remote learning. Extracurriculars like theater and sports were done for the year.

There would be no production of “Les Misérables,” despite all the hard work Riverhead students had put in.

As students arrived back in classrooms for the 2020-21 school year, the situation had hardly improved for theater students. A failed budget meant drastic cutbacks on extracurricular activities. A fall production couldn’t happen as it normally would.

“We didn’t know what was going on in the world, we didn’t know what was happening,” Ethan said. “All we knew we just wanted to perform and show our talent and gift to other people.”

For Laura Nitti and Dena Tishim, who have teamed together as co-directors on the school’s theater productions, getting their students back into some sort of new normal became a paramount goal. A glimmer of hope arrived last December when the Riverhead Board of Education approved funding that would begin in March 2021.

What followed was an all-hands effort to put together a spring production of “High School Musical” in a way unlike anything theater students had done before in Riverhead. Facing a condensed schedule and COVID restrictions, the students quickly rallied to perform the musical as a film that could be streamed rather than a live stage production. In June, the production came together with an outdoor screening on the high school football field, providing theater students a night to celebrate after a previous year of disappointment.

For their leadership and commitment to putting on a spring production while facing a wave of adversity, and for their longtime dedication to music and theater in Riverhead schools and their ability to bring out the best in so many students, Ms. Nitti and Ms. Tishim are the News-Review’s 2021 Educators of the Year.

Dena Tishim

Ms. Tishim, who is the high school choral director, and Ms. Nitti, who is the musical director of the Riverhead Faculty and Community Theatre, have had a big impact on many students pursuing music and theater. Last fall, Ms. Nitti helped organize a variety show through a group Friends of the Blue Masques that some of the theater students could participate in and they considered a fall show, even though it wasn’t directly affiliated with the school.

Ethan, who now attends the University of Tampa, recalled how he wrote his college essay about Ms. Tishim, whom he described as a “best friend” and someone he “would look up to forever.”

And he recalled how Ms. Nitti watched him grow up from a young age in ensemble roles to becoming the lead in high school productions.

“To have such a great impact from two wonderful music directors, to be able to pursue a career in music education, is something that I’ll always look up to Dena and Laura for what they did for me to get myself ready for that,” he said.

Dana Treadwell, who graduated in June, was nominated for a Teeny Award for her lead role as Sharpay in “High School Musical.” Ethan was also nominated for his role as Troy.

Laura Nitti

Dana recalled when Ms. Nitti and Ms. Tishim announced the production would be “High School Musical,” they didn’t know yet if it could be done on stage, recorded or a movie.

“Quite honestly, Dena and I didn’t really know what it was going to look like at the time,” Ms. Nitti said last May. “We were putting on the rah-rah great face, but we really didn’t even know what was going to happen. Everything was so up in the air.”

The directors reached out to Disney to request special permission for the production to be turned into a film.

“At the time, it seemed like no one could get away with singing on the stage unless you were 12 feet apart,” Dana said. “We made a movie so that way we could sing, but still be next to each other without any issues because we would be lip syncing.”

She said it took “so much effort” for the production to come together.

Ms. Nitti took the lead on the film side and her son, Jacob, who’s a 2019 Riverhead graduate, assisted on mixing the audio. Ms. Tishim took the lead on teaching all the music in the production. 

“I don’t how they did that,” Dana said of the two co-directors. “They’re really good co-directors.”

As president of the Blue Masques at the time, Dana said she got to see the film prior to its official release during the outdoor movie night. But most of the students had to wait until the release before they could see how it all came together.

“A lot of people were really nervous,” Dana said. “When it came out, it was really good.”

Looking back, Dana said it was a “proud experience.”

“One thing I’ll take away, as corny as it sounds, is music will always go on,” she said. “You can never stop musical theater kids. They will find a way.”

Previous Winners

2020: Kimberly Benkert and Robert Brandi
2019: Sal Loverde
2018: Ed Meier
2017: Felicia Scocozza
2016: Melissa Haupt
2015: Robert Shilling
2014: Greg Wallace
2013: Keri Stromski
2012: Jeff Doroski
2011: Jim Schaefer
2010: Stacy Tuohy
2009: Laura Grable
2008: Vincent Nasta
2007: Marion Dorman
2006: Theresa Drozd
2005: Frank Rotenberg
2004: Kevin McAllister
2003: Leif Shay
2002: Bob Jester
2001: Jean Lapinski
2000: Pat Rose
1999: Pat Snyder
1998: Carol Masin
1997: L. Custer, J. Greenberger
1996: Terri Peters
1995: Jim Roth
1994: Tim Hubbard
1993: Dot Moran
1992: Dorothy Lipsky
1991: Willie Patterson
1990: Audrey Stupke
1989: Ray McKieghan
1988: Stanley Krouse