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!