When Reed High School choir director Malary Engstrom opted to take over the programming of the school’s musical production of Les Misérables she expected obstacles. She expected massive loads of work and stress, and she chose not to go it alone.
Instead Engstrom enticed her long-time best friend to take the director’s chair so she could focus on the music. The only problem was that entrusted best friend lived 2,600 miles away in New York, and though she was capable of directing Les Mis she had a major decision to make.
“I am a working actress in New York. I do theater in New York and I direct and do improv comedy and all that stuff, but in order to survive I also had a day job as a bank manager,” director Giana DeGeiso said. “I knew, obviously, I wouldn’t be able to take two months off from work so it took about a month of really thinking about it until I could say I would much rather be here than working for a financial institution that I hate doing.
“It is obviously not my thing and obviously not my passion at all. So I made the decision to quit my job and come out here and do this instead and take a step toward a happier and more fulfilling life.”
DeGeiso laughed when telling of how the two of them became friends. Both at age 12, DeGeiso was undeterred when Engstrom denied her request to join her band. If they weren’t going to be bandmates they were going to be showmates.
“Her and I have been doing community theater since we were kids,” DeGeiso said. “I remember in high school we had this dream of owning our own theater someday and doing all the theater stuff. It is an 18-year-old dream coming true in a way.”
Now at 26, the chemistry between the director (DeGeiso) and musical director (Engstrom) is seamless. Sitting across from each other backstage, on the final day of dress rehearsal, they are quick to boast the traits of one another.
“It’s interesting because I sort of have the educational job in the arts and she is out there actually doing it,” Engstrom said. “What we have discovered is that she is so great at teaching what she loves, and because there is a passion in it for her, the kids feed off of it.”
Engstrom said her bond with DeGeiso helped keep stress levels regulated and keep the focus on the students. From her first introduction to the students DeGeiso ensured the students would listen to her, and have some fun at the same time.
“Both Malary and I are super chill, young and not too far off from where the students are right now so I feel that we know what these kids need from an adult,” DeGeiso said. “As an adult, I also remember how easy it was to take advantage of teachers that were a little more laxed.
“I really do think the first thing I said was ‘my name is Giana DeGeiso and you will call me Ms. Giana because I demand respect. And now I have a nice little call and response where I yell ‘I demand’ and they shout back ‘respect!’”
As the minutes ticked down to the final dress rehearsal DeGeiso actively worked with the two leading actors onstage while Engstrom handled the audio equipment and used her hands as a metronome. For DeGeiso, coming home to Nevada was more than just a chance to direct a play.
“I am so thankful for Malary and for this opportunity because I would have stayed in banking forever,” DeGeiso said. “The money is attractive and benefits and all that, but it has never ever been what I wanted to do. I have always wanted to be a teacher in theater.”
Engstrom, who is in her second year of teaching in Washoe County, said she was the one benefitting from DeGeiso’s return. Engstrom said her devotion to the production and to her students will be on display in its highest form because of her directing partnership.
“To me, having her here made the world of difference” Engstrom said. “Being able to do this together took so much stress off because we do work so well together. I am just really excited for people to see that this means a lot to me personally.”
Reed’s Les Misérables production runs today through Saturday and March 7-9 with shows beginning at 7 p.m. and Saturday matinees beginning at 2 p.m.
As for DeGeiso, her return to New York will feature a newly acquired teaching position in an after school theater program. A little icing on the cake, if you will.
“That is what I have always wanted,” DeGeiso said. “I am just as stoked to be here. It saved my life in a way because I would have stayed in that bank forever.”