It says something about a high school class when a fire alarm goes off and nobody races gleefully for the door.
Pace Academy theater teacher Sean Bryan said his “entire class moaned in great frustration” when a fire drill sounded during a recent acting class. His students were doing their daily warmup — mimicking the leader of the moment in interpreting music through movement.
“They were frustrated because they were having a blast,” Bryan said.
On top of that, darn it, they had to put their shoes back on.
Pace began offering Upper School acting classes for the first time with Bryan’s arrival last school year. It joins other local high schools in taking theater far beyond the realm of just an after-school activity.
Theater programs are growing at some area schools, despite education’s love affair with STEM, a curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.
Schools such as North Springs Charter High School have jumped on the “Picking Up STEAM (STEM+ A for Arts)” train, with Travis Chapman working as their full-time coordinator on the trending national initiative. STEAM recognizes that technical success requires creativity and critical thinking skills best developed through exposure to the arts, Chapman said.
Theater, for example, is the ultimate group project.
“There are so many tasks to be done to get to the final product, which is opening night,” Bryan said. “We have technical students, musicians, actors, assistant directors … Everyone can’t be Dorothy [in the “Wizard of Oz”], but we still need to find a crystal ball for the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Megan Cramer, the new Upper Learning theater teacher at The Galloway School, has worked as associate artistic director of New York City’s 52nd Street Project, a nonprofit that connects inner-city kids with theater professionals. She said students have told her theater enhanced their presentation skills and taught them a lot about themselves and others.
“The students can come together to work on a project and be able to present it to human beings in a space and in a moment that they share together,” Cramer said, “That’s so rare right now.”
And it’s valued. Upper Learning students can earn class credit for working on school shows, she said.
David Gay, a 25-year teacher in his second year at Dunwoody High School, said his theater classes prepare students who want to become professionals, but offer something for everyone.
“You can act, build a set, work on a light board or a sound board,” Gay said. “For some people, this is an outlet where they find acceptance, community and family.”
Raina Williams was feeling her way as a new freshman at Pace last year when a friend talked her into auditioning for the musical “Legally Blonde.”
“I froze and I freaked out,” Williams said. “I didn’t even go back the next day for the second part of the audition.”
Somehow, Bryan saw potential behind the panic and cast Williams in non-speaking roles in that musical and others. She’s also worked props.
“I just fell in love with the singing, dancing and the whole backstage thing of being in musicals,” Williams said. “There are costume changes, props that need to be distributed, managers keeping you on task. It’s like magic. I don’t know how it happens.”
Williams has landed her first speaking role in the play “A Piece of My Heart,” the production to be staged at Pace this fall, and said theater has helped her manage stress.
“Anyone can do theater and everyone should,” she said. “It has made me a happier person because it’s kind of an alternative way to express how I feel. It’s really like, for me, uplifting.”
Bryan said theater also forces students to develop empathy as they step into another character’s perspective.
Jon Tyler Owens, who teaches theater at North Springs Charter High School, reflected on the intimacy of live theater. “When you’re in a room with a good actor of a good company of actors, it can be a transcending experience,” Owens said. “It can be kind of a game changer about how you view experiences, without the filter of a lens, which adds a separation.”
Theater changed the game big-time for Galloway senior Isabella Swaak, who said she used to be “super shy.” “I felt like an outcast. I was taller than everyone, not as skinny as everyone,” she said.
But after playing a sassy role in “The Little Mermaid” years ago, Isabella worked to take on some of the traits she admired about her character. She learned to love her body and became more self-confident, she said, stepping away from a recent rehearsal for “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”
At Dunwoody, Gay almost can’t talk about theater without bringing up DHS’ competitive speech team, which he started. “I tell students (speech) will change you,” said Gay, a “Triple-Diamond coach” in the National Speech & Debate Association.
Senior Patrick Clinch joined the team last year and became a national qualifier in the finals for humorous interpretation. Clinch is one of the leaders of Dunwoody’s improv troupe, which performs monthly. He said theater has been a great way to burn off some of his pent-up energy, and it has made him feel confident about his ability to present and perform before audiences.
“It can be difficult to be in high school, where there are a lot of social stratifications,” Clinch added. “Theater brings people together in a very unique way.”
At North Springs, which has magnet programs in math/sciences and visual/performing arts, Owens teaches an acting track and Joel King teaches a technical theater track. They stage three main productions a year. Their program’s motto: “We don’t do high school shows. We do professional shows with high school students.”
They always do understudy shows of their productions, exposing more students to audiences. One of these shows became a defining moment for North Springs senior Myron Parker, who plays a slave named “Miles” in the PBS series “Mercy Street.”
Parker said he started high school as a cocky film actor who didn’t think theater could do much for him. He signed up after he heard other actors talking about its benefits.
By junior year he was getting lead roles in school plays “and not thinking about it hard,” Parker said.
So he was stunned after he auditioned for a part in Henrik Ibsen’s play “Hedda Gabler” to find that not only was he cast as an understudy, it wasn’t even for a lead part.
“I was very much devastated,” Parker said. “It was a really humbling experience.”
But Parker said he “sucked it up,” and plunged into his character, “decoding” Ellert Lovborg until he understood him completely.
In the end, the understudy show was “one of the most powerful performances that I’ve ever seen,” Parker said. “People in the audience were crying. That’s an experience I think I’ll take throughout my entire life.”
His theater teacher, who studied Shakespeare in the United Kingdom as a Fulbright scholar, had always said he never wanted to teach high school students. But Owens’ need for a job coincided with an opening at North Springs five years ago. After a “horrible” first year, Owens said he has grown to appreciate a job he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
“There’s something really special about watching these kids develop,” he said. “Sometimes they make me so mad, but sometimes they make me so proud I’ve got tears in my eyes.”
–Donna Williams Lewis