Somewhere in this social media world, there is a page dedicated to those, like me, who absolutely loved our high school theatre program. Now that I have children of my own, one of whom is particularly interested in theatre, I have only gained more appreciation for my own experience. I have long wondered what made it work. On the surface, the success of the program is obvious. The program can boast of actors and writers on Broadway, on TV, movie makers, etc.. (Me? I go to plays. And try to bring students.) But I think it’s success runs deeper than that. While the program was largely in the hands of one person, I’ll call her Lynn (yes, a pseudonym, and yes, we called our teachers by their first names), I don’t think it was a case of cult of personality. And it wasn’t just a case of ‘the theatre crowd.’ Since my private school was small, lots of students did lots of activities and there was, in my memory and experience at least, not a lot of judgment around. Of our current TV stars was also the starting forward on the basketball team. How did the school achieve that culture? I do give Lynn credit for at least two things. She had incredibly high standards – for herself and for all of us. I still remember her delight in telling all of us the story about how one long-time theatre parent told her early in one production that she’d finally “bitten off more than [she] can chew” and then come back to her later and said how much he’d enjoyed the show. I hope he apologized, but I don’t remember. I remember loving the way she refused that there was anything she, and therefore, we could not do, even with a limited budget (and the fact that we produced our shows in the gym). Her spirit was contagious, and the colleagues that worked with her radiated that spirits well. She gave students a lot of responsibility. A LOT. And you had to earn it, especially on the technical side. (Having no talent for it, I know little about the casting side.) You started on a crew and worked your way up. And it was not all about talent. I was not particularly skilled at designing and building sets, for example, but I’d earned my chance to design and build a set for Pygmalion that was, or at least was supposed to be, in the round. And she let us fail. She had to. She couldn’t do everything herself. I still wince at some of the props I didn’t finish in time for The King & I.
Are there successful and wonderful theatre programs at public schools? Absolutely. Are they so woven into the school culture as ours was and, by all accounts, still is? If you were in a public school theatre program, how much responsibility did you have? Do you still love theatre?
I think the element that has most carried over into my own teaching is the way Lynn treated us like adults. She had to, I think. I don’t know whether it was deliberate; it just was. And we tried hard to live up to her expectations.