Going Home

Today I had the very difficult job of telling my students that I will not be returning to Kearney High School next year. I love my students (I mean, look at that picture to see why), and I have enjoyed being a part of their growth as artists and humans. I feel like I’ve done everything in my power to build the foundation of an outstanding theatre program at KHS. I’m leaving proud of the work we’ve done together. I will miss so many things about Kearney High. My colleagues are truly some of the best I’ve worked with. My students are delightful, passionate, and committed. I have dear friends and community members that have shown me so much support and love throughout my time here. I have no idea where I would be without you.
 
That all being said, why am I moving on? Well, I have the amazing opportunity to return to my old high school, Lincoln East and teach theatre. I owe so much to my beloved high school theatre teacher, Carol Scott. I am honored that I will get work with the students of my old school to give back all she gave to me during my years as a Spartan. I never knew how amazing Carol was until I became a teacher myself. She, sadly, died when I was a junior in college…long before I could understand all that she did for her students. My first year of teaching, I kept wanting to call her to ask her questions. I feel like I took her for granted when she was here. I certainly hope I’ve made her proud since that time. 
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Carol “Scotty” Scott, former theatre teacher at Lincoln East High School
Secondly, I get to work with an old friend, Pat Vendetti. A master designer of sets and lights, who also happens to be an old grad school chum. That’s right folks, there is a FULL-TIME TECHNICAL DIRECTOR AT EAST HIGH SCHOOL!  Those of you that know me, know how this totally changes my life. Instead of working 60-90 hours a week, I will now have the support to work only 40-60 on average. This gives me back the ability to tend to my health, relationship, and family. The older I get, the more I realize how important work-life-service balance. I think this job at East High School will allow me to do that. I am so grateful that I will get to collaborate with an artist like Pat…and, wait for it, I also have an ASSISTANT! It’s too good to be true, isn’t it?
 
Lastly, I get to be near my parents. They have been my biggest supporters and I hope I’m able to give them something back now that I will be closer. I really couldn’t ask for more wonderful parents.
 
So, as hard as it is to step away from a program that has so much potential, I truly think this is the right decision for me personally and professionally. I will miss Kearney and the many people that have helped me and touched my life my time here. I hope you know who you are. If not, I hope to get the chance to thank you in person when I see you in the near future. I am really looking forward to making my 6 weeks left at KHS amazing. Come see my last show, Children of Eden, April 28th-May 1st. It’s going to be incredible!
Here is a sneak peek:
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Living Newspaper Modern Greek Theatre Rehearsal

Most of my students at Kearney High take a required course called Theatre. It is a 9 week course in which I pack as much theatre info and fun in as I can. Most of my kids are 9th or 10th graders and have never been involved with theatre until now. Lately, my students have been working on a devised theatre piece that emulates qualities of a Greek Theatre chorus with the content from a recent major news story. Here is a group from today’s class in their second rehearsal. They used the San Bernardino shooting as their inspiration. Check back later for the final performance when they add masks. It’s a work in progress. 🙂

Sorry, I’ve got rehearsal: or what I’ve gained from saying “I can’t”

“Sorry, I’ve got rehearsal.”

“Sorry, I’m building the set all weekend.”

“Sorry, I can’t. We’ve got improv that night.”

I spend a lot of time telling my friends and community, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” I don’t like it, but we all know that this is a part of theatre. Beyond my eight hours of teaching, I am also a director, designer, carpenter, coach, stitcher, stage manager, curriculum writer, master-electrician, blah, blah, blah. Oh yeah, and I’m a daughter, friend, wife-to-be, volunteer, activist, blah, blah, blah. I’m the type of person that wants to do everything, but my job requires me to limit a lot of what I do. I don’t like that part of my job, but instead of focusing on the negative, today I’m going to focus on all the things I GAIN because of the reasons I have to say “I can’t”

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Kearney High Theatre Drama Club Fun Night 2015 Theatre Game Play

 

  • I gain time with students. Few teachers are as lucky as I am to spend quality time with their students. Not only do I spend roughly 20+ hours a week in rehearsal with my students, I spend roughly 15-20 hours on the weekend building sets with my kids. I get to know these kids really well. They share with me their dreams, fears, goals, and jokes. We talk about current events, art, the play we are working on…or sometimes just trade Alan Rickman impersonations. I’m so grateful for this time to learn about who my students are beyond the rehearsal hall and classroom. It helps me be a better teacher and director to them. I don’t take for granted that I spend more time with them than many of their parents do.
  • I gain new skills all the time. Each play is a new adventure. When I started teaching high school over twelve years ago, I didn’t know how to build much at all. So, I cracked a few books, watched a few videos, and learned how to build a staircase for a show that needed it. I also learned how to frame a door that year, but not well. I still struggle with doors, but I’m learning. With the help of a dear friend and the father of one of my students, we put a pool on stage one year. Sometimes we have to learn American Sign Language, or a traditional folk dance, or a new way to dye a fabric. There truly is never a dull moment.
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Drama Club Fun Night in my Classroom Fall, 2015
  • I am constantly entertained. My students are really funny. I get to laugh constantly. I do my job because I love it. The kids are what make it so fun.
  • Everything is new again. Each year we put on four different shows. It’s always a new experience, with new content, with new students. It’s very hard to get bored.
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Drama Club Fun Night: Project Runway (Students get grouped and given a theme, i.e. “The Potato Famine” and gave 20 minutes to raid the prop/costume storage areas to create a runway show.
  • I witness transformation. I see my students through personal and existential struggles. I get the honor to see the moment when the lightbulb “goes off” and they begin to think for themselves, have an artistic breakthrough, or finally realize what other people think, doesn’t matter.
  • I have hundreds of reasons to get up in the morning: When I was going through a tough time in my life over a decade ago, I realized that in a time of need, I need to be needed. When I had dozens reasons to not get out of bed, my students presented me with the hundred reasons why I need to be there. I had kids waiting at 7am at my door ready to have their morning chat. This time was sacred to them. It helped them get in the right mindset for their day and allowed them a moment with an adult that would hear them out. I’d like to think I did a lot for those kids, but honestly they saved my life. If not for them needing me to be there, I’m not sure what would have become of me.
  • I am a positive force in young people’s lives: This is the most important thing. I am very honored when my students trust me to help them through the challenges of their lives. I’ve been luckily enough to be chosen to be a listener, counselor, friend, parent, coach, teacher, and director. I’ve helped students find the right college, find the right friends, find the right activities, and find their path to happiness. I will never have to doubt that my life had worth.

Overall, I do this job because it gives me so much back. I wish I was completely altruistic, but sadly, I’m not. A lot of my identity is wrapped up into what I do for a living, probably because the amount of time I spend doing my job. If I’m not a good theatre teacher, then I feel like I’m not a good person. Happiness in my life really depends on happiness in my career. Being a theatre teacher allows me the great privilege to say, “I made a difference.” No weekend or weekday evening is worth giving up the chance to be important to someone else.

So…sorry, I can’t. I’m trying my best everyday to be a positive force for change in young people’s lives. You should join me. I promise you’ll be entertained!

 

The Lonely Life of a Theatre Teacher

People often fall in love with theatre due to its collaborative nature; I know I did. I learned at a young age that I was happiest when I was surrounded by others who were brighter and more creative than myself. Throughout high school, I hung out with kids who were talented and brilliant and I delighted in their intellectual glow. I thrive most when I am challenged and inspired by other people.  Theatre people are all about creating magic with a few good artists in the room together. All that said, it’s strange how isolating it is to be a high school theatre teacher in America.

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Kearney High’s Winter Play Rumors 2015. Set Design by Scenographics, constructed by Shannon Cameron. Hair, Make-Up, Costumes and Lights designed by Shannon Cameron

Here in Nebraska, it’s rare when a high school has a dedicated theatre teacher who doesn’t also teach another subject as well. Some small schools offer only a one-act, which a music teacher or counselor will supervise as an “extra duty” assignment. Even more rare, is to have another theatre teacher, or the holy grail: a Technical Director.  In most Nebraska schools, this role is far more broadly defined than it is in professional theatre. In addition to the duties traditionally associated with a TD, Nebraska high school Technical Directors also serve as designer, manager, contract writer, carpenter, master-electrician, etc. This past year I’ve been fighting hard for us to hire a full-time Technical Director here at Kearney High. We are getting a new Performing Arts Center next fall thanks to the generous taxpayers of Kearney. It’s going to be an amazing space and my students will be proud to perform there. However, in order to keep this new space in good condition, properly maintained, and safe for everyone who uses it, we really need someone who will supervise it directly. As a performing arts center, theatre is not the only activity that will make use of this space. Several high/middle school/elementary bands, orchestras, and choirs will use it as their main performance venue. Furthermore, the community and the rest of the district uses it for meetings, performances, recitals, etc. It’s a lot to keep track of and change-overs are a ton of work. We really need someone with the technical expertise to tackle this job.

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Selfishly, I want a true collaborator and a second teacher to my students. I am a trained director who must also design, build, and focus every set, costume, and light. I am certainly no expert on the technical aspects of theatre, but after a number of years of trial and error, I’m proud to say that I know my way around most power tools and ellipsoidals. However, I would far prefer to have a knowledgeable designer as a  partner in the creation of technical elements, because they are an expert on these things. As I begin pre-production work on our spring musical, Children of Eden, my mind is swimming with director ideas; symbols, color schemes, historical paintings, found objects, themes, and research, and I could really use an artistic team to work through these ideas. But instead, it’s just me out there, floating with my thoughts. And you know what? This show is going to be good. I have a lot of good ideas. But, the show could be great. My ideas could be far better with the help of some inspired designers to work with. Together we could find the best way to tell the story.

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The Crucible by Arthur Miller produced by Kearney High Theatre. Set/Lighting Design by Shannon Cameron, costume rented from Norcostco

Luckily, I have my students and they are fantastic. I challenge them to solve problems of the script along with me, which is a great learning opportunity for them. I am also grateful to have a few professional designers in town to call upon. However it is very difficult to fit them in my budget, and they absolutely need to be paid. I try to reach out to one for each show. I rented costumes for the 37 actors in The Crucible this fall, I hired a lighting designer for Cinderella last year, and I will continue to do that as we can raise funds to make it happen. 

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Kearney High Theatre’s production of Rumors, Spring 2015

Teachers of theatre are so often department-less. They get lumped into the English department, but we are not the same. Luckily, I have hundreds of very entertaining students that make the hours spent a bit less lonely. Theatre is a collaborative art, after all. Cross your fingers we get that Technical Director next fall!

 

What I did on my summer vacation

I’ve been busy this summer. And like millions of other teachers around the country who get their summers off, I’ve been working. My summer job actually started before school ended—I began rehearsals in mid-May for the first of two plays I directed at Crane River Theater Company. I had the distinct privilege of directing John Logan’s beautiful play, Red.

RED in rehearsal with Michael Williams (Ken) and David Rozema (Rothko). Photo by Shannon Cameron
RED in rehearsal with Michael Williams (Ken) and David Rozema (Rothko). Photo by Shannon Cameron

If you are unfamiliar with the play, it is a fictional look at the two years in Rothko’s life when he was working on the Four Seasons commission for the Seagram’s building in NYC. It explores several ideas including the cost of success in art, the artmaking process, father/son relationships, evolution in art, etc. It’s a beautiful two-person play that I connected with on many levels. You might be wondering why I would choose to direct more theatre when my whole school year is filled to the brim with the stuff. The truth is, I can’t do shows like Red at school. I have to do productions with a big cast to encourage involvement in my program that I am desperately trying to rebuild. I need those numbers so I can sell a lot of tickets to make up for my non-existent budget. I also have to be very careful with the content of each play I produce at the high school level due to the conservative community I live in. The language in Red was sometimes colorful (hah!), although never gratuitous. Beyond the text, I got to work with two trained and incredibly intelligent actors. Although I might get to work with some smart kids in high school, they are just beginning their actor training. Michael Williams (Ken) was fresh out of Webster University’s BFA Conservatory Program (where I spent two years of undergrad) and David Rozema is a local star in town who has performed in many a production with Crane River and Kearney Community Theatre. David is also a Philosophy Professor at the local college. Both of my actors had deep respect for the story they were telling and were a dream to work with. The other benefit to working for a semi-professional theatre company in the summer is that my one and only job is to direct the show. Unlike at the high school where I serve as set/costume/light/sound designer, marketing department, box office, carpenter, stitcher, electrician, accountant, etc., my only job was to direct the show. Okay, I was the sound designer as well, but I’m unsure if I only know how to do one role in the theatre at a time anymore. I love working with real designers who bring so much to the process and the production.

Rothko (David Rozema) and Ken (Michael Williams) in Red by John Logan. Photo by Kerri Garrison

Red had a three-week rehearsal period during which we discovered characters and action through exercises. It was really nice to just direct and focus on the work. I need that. You see, I am an artist who happens to be a teacher. I love the art I make with my students and I deeply believe in what we do together. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to sometimes work on a higher level to feel fulfilled. Neither is more important than the other. I know enough about myself that I need both in my life.

David Rozema as Rothko in RED. Photo by Kerri Garrison
David Rozema as Rothko in RED. Photo by Kerri Garrison

Right after Red, I had surgery on my ankle and was forced to wear a boot for six weeks. Two days after surgery I was in rehearsal for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  We rehearsed from 9am-10pm each day and I did my best to stay off of my newly reconstructed ankle. I’m a terrible patient and I hate depending on anyone or anything. I couldn’t drive for 5 weeks because it was my right (driving) foot. My fiancé was so kind to cart me to rehearsal every day. I bit my lip and dealt with it as best I could. We closed the show last Sunday and I have to say I will miss that wonderful cast so much. They just had so much gosh darn heart. They were hard working, gracious, generous, talented, and beautiful people. It was a pleasure for me to be a part of their lives for a short time.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Crane River Theatre Company 2015. Photo by Shannon Cameron
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Crane River Theatre Company 2015. Photo by Shannon Cameron

Once Joseph opened, I got the rare opportunity to go on vacation. I spent seven days with my extended family in a remote cabin 15 miles outside of Estes Park in Colorado. It was restful, fun, and wonderful. I fell in love with the mountains, the big sky, the people, and nature. It was hard to come home.

Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Shannon Cameron
Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Shannon Cameron

Now, I’m beginning the journey of my second year teaching at Kearney High and my first year teaching adjunct at Central Community College in Hastings. I’m excited about both. I know that I’ll be a better teacher this year due to my experiences this summer. I can’t believe it, but I’m pretty excited to get started.

Have a great school year everybody!

Allowing my students to fail

As I type this I am sitting in the first day of tech rehearsals for the Thespian play. This is the last production of the Kearney High school year, and it is traditionally completely student produced. It is directed, designed, acted, and constructed by students. Tonight has been a tough rehearsal so far. Two actors didn’t show up, the gaff tape fell off some of the flat seams, a few actors don’t know their lines, and little publicity has gone out. My role has been simply to set deadlines for my student directors, be present to guide them if they have questions, and facilitate set build. You might assume a theatre teacher would enjoy the break in responsibility, but in truth, it terrifies me.

Matthew, one of the two student directors, is frustrated as he finds himself still on book on the first day of tech.
Matthew, one of the two student directors, is frustrated as he finds himself still on book on the first day of tech.

Why? Because I’m scared for my students to fail. The educator in me knows this is actually the best thing for them. The possibility of failure allows for the greatest opportunity for growth. Directing a show is hard. Directing your high-school peers is really hard. I know all too well what it is like to deal with kids missing rehearsals, not memorizing their lines, breaking character, and no one showing up to build the set on the weekend. Because of that, I want to spare them the feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

Cheryl and Connor rehearse a scene

On the other hand, I know I need to step back, let them problem solve, and find their own way. If I try to micromanage every aspect I am robbing them of the ownership of their production. If through their hard work and hours they find success, I want them to be able to own every piece of it.

Andrew and Ben rehearsing
Andrew and Ben rehearsing

And even though there are lots of problems tonight, I can see the growth and I know they will be proud of their success.

  • I see kids navigating the tricky diplomacy that comes with leading their peers.
  • I see beautiful pieces of furniture students have worked tirelessly on. These are the same students who didn’t know anything about set construction at the beginning of the year.
  • I see young directors problem solving to get the most out of their actors
  • I see young adults dealing with stress and developing coping mechanisms
  • I see performances from kids that have been truly inspired by their peer directors
  • I see kids that care about this show and institute positive peer-pressure to get others to care.
Thor and Andrea rehearsing Wait Wait...I Can Explain
Thor and Andrea rehearsing Wait Wait…I Can Explain

I also see kids that are stressed, worried, and living in a bit of fear. They are wondering if their friends will come through: Will they get work off tomorrow so they can attend the full rehearsal? Will they work on their lines? Do I look awkward up there? Am I good enough?

Little do they know, these are some of the  questions that are asked at every age and experience level. Little do they know this little play might be their best theatre experience of the year. Not because of the complicated set, lights, costumes or brilliant performances, but because they did it all themselves. Failure is possible, but it is also just the First Attempt In Learning.

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I’m proud that they haven’t let that possibility keep them from continuing to creatively problem solve and work hard…and I’m pretty proud of myself for not meddling and trusting the process.

trust the process