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The Play’s the Thing: An interview with a High School Theater Director

Posted by Theology of Home on
The Play’s the Thing: An interview with a High School Theater Director


“I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
- Oscar Wilde

By Denise Trull  

I have always loved these words of Oscar Wilde. I have experienced the truth of them time and again, play after play. I spent thirteen years directing high school students, and I count those the most creative, expanding, and magical years of my life and hopefully theirs. I had a great run, as the saying goes, but directing and producing plays in general is a younger person’s game. There comes a time when a director has to lay down that last, oh-so-tantalizing script, turn the key to the theater door, and walk away at last. It’s an act of hope, turning that key--a hope that someone else will come along and open the door again and carry on with “that greatest of all art forms.”

I found myself locking that particular door of my life one spring afternoon. I sat down in the musty sunshine of an old classroom among my props and sets, and wrote about my journey through drama--a journey taken with many teens in tow. It was a cathartic few hours, there were tears, there was more than a chuckle or two as I typed faster and faster. In the end, all that remained was gratitude that I had been given the gift of directing thirty-three plays and had spent countless hours with the wonder and challenge that is teens discovering their beautiful voice. A sympathetic, and artistic online magazine with the delightful name of Dappled Things kindly published my thoughts for which I am, to this day, eternally grateful. I had come full circle. The door was locked now, my set pieces began gathering dust, the costumes hung silently dreaming of former glory. And there, I surmised, was “an end.”     

One day, not long after this, I received a wonderful, energetic instant message on my phone telling me how my essay had simply read her mind. The words were jumping off my phone in enthusiasm. That mind belonged to a wonderful young woman named Kathryn Wales. I loved her from the first word I read. She was at the beginning of her directing journey, teaching drama at a small classical high school called Hillsdale Academy, in Hillsdale, Michigan. I felt like I was hearing my younger self in some sort of time travel meet up. We wrote back and forth and she told me all about her current play and all the victories and woes and struggles therein. I was definitely making a fast friend as these rapid fire messages traveled between us over the next weeks and months.

I eventually made a decision. I would once again unlock my drama door--not for me, but for her. I decided to give all my sets, costumes, props and stage pieces to Kathryn. My husband and I loaded up a U-Haul and traveled up to Michigan to deliver them.

We had a wonderful time. We breakfasted with Kathryn, her wonderful husband Jordan, and three tousled, lively boys one of whom was delightfully named after Sebastian Flyte...truly, indeed, I had landed among my own. I could not have parted with Oberon’s velvet cape, or my crowns, my Jane Eyre bonnets, or my Medieval gowns for just anybody. I knew Kathryn would honor them in new ways of her own, blow the dust off of them, and give them new life. My theater, in a real way, lived happily on.

Since that day, I have shared many a tech week angst with Kathryn. We talk about her teens, about the beauty of certain plays, and the trials and tribulations of the small high school theater. And most of all, the struggle to find words strong enough to emphasize its vital importance for teens in a world dominated by team sports. I asked Kathryn if she would share her thoughts with me here as I think she is wise and understands the beauty of theater more than most I have met. Below is our conversation.

Trull: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Wales: Most of my childhood took place in the south where I was unwittingly developing a taste for Flannery O’Connor. I’m the eldest in my family and the only daughter. From age five I started putting my brothers and any neighborhood kids in little plays. I kept directing in one form or another until late high school when I briefly switched to broadcast journalism, and then in college I gave myself a sort of Great Books education with a Catholic concentration and neglected theater (save for the occasional play that I attended). I met my husband Jordan at Mass one day when I was a freshman and he was having a quarter-life crisis over whether or not to leave his study of robotics at Carnegie Mellon to study theology at Notre Dame. He did. We were married as soon as I graduated and we had a few kids in South Bend where I worked as a theology teacher, dramaturg, and later program coordinator for the Center for Ethics and Culture. My husband was hired by Hillsdale College ten years ago, and I’ve been directing plays at two different schools for most of that time. 

Trull: Have you, yourself, always been involved in theater? In high school? College? 

Wales: I think I thought of my life as theater from a very young age. Storytelling has always gripped me, and I’ve always sought ways to engage that part of myself. I directed my first “real” show in seventh grade (The Ugly Duckling) and it was performed on my birthday. In high school my drama teacher saw that my talent was for directing and not acting, which is why he let me student direct a show (Aria da Capo) that won an award at a regional drama festival. When my family moved from Mississippi to Pennsylvania in the middle of my junior year of high school, I found that my new school only put on musicals and that bummed me out. I pursued other things for about five years, but I think I was educating myself in other ways all along about which stories ought to be told and are worth the work. 

Trull: What most attracted you to drama?

Wales: What most attracted me was the emotional outlet. Theater is a place where people are invited to be dramatic and expressive. I really needed that. I was always highly sensitive, and that was made to feel more like a liability than an asset until I found the stage. High school kids are dealing with so many hormonal changes and big feelings that need to be processed in a healthy and productive way. Just as regular social dancing has provided a space for controlled, playful relating for much of human history, drama still does. A married couple in a play has to seem real. For a kid to put that on means practicing his or her masculinity or femininity in a more mature form and directing it towards the other. A character who experiences agony in some moment provides an outlet to that actor who has more personal pain than any teacher could guess. A clown role might garner more positive attention for a shy or even bullied child than any other experience at such a critical period of development. These are acts of catharsis, transcendence, and healing. I love the book, The Body Keeps the Score, especially for its last chapter on theater. I wish everyone would read that.  

Trull: What was your first magic” play? That one that hooked you in? 

Wales: I’m laughing as I type this because I think it was a production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I saw in high school which was so terrible I felt a desperate desire to take over and fix it. I have since done that show twice and it was immensely satisfying. But the first play that I read and was hooked by was Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade. Shakespeare completely dazzled me. 

Trull: How did you end up teaching drama at Hillsdale? What was your starting goal? Did that change over time? How do you best achieve that goal in your directorial style?  

Wales: I wanted to send my sons to Hillsdale Academy but was daunted by the cost of admission. I offered to teach–theology, literature, or drama–to be able to make it work. I was hired to help out the drama/music teacher with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was a struggle for me because the show wasn’t quite to my taste and I was pregnant the whole time. But my long-term goal was to bring Shakespeare to these incredibly talented high schoolers.

The following year I directed a lush, enchanting, and unabridged Midsummer Nights Dream set to several of my favorite Camille Saint-Saens pieces. It was a success and the other teacher and I agreed to take turns alternating between musicals and Shakespearean comedies. My next goal was to produce a tragedy, but I felt that the students needed to ramp up to that by way of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. That was such a beautiful experience. I’ve since directed Romeo and Juliet which made several grown men cry.  

Trull: Why do you think drama is so necessary for high school kids to experience -- even if they dont see it right away? 

Wales: High school kids need to connect their heads to their hearts and also their bodies to their souls in order to be more fully human. I think drama does that better than anything else. It also teaches them to work with others in ways that I don’t think other activities can. Honestly the best answer to this question I’ve ever seen is your piece in Dappled Things, Denise, which is what brought us together. I’ve read that several times and have sent it to many people. Everyone, read that!

Trull: What plays have worked best for high school? Why? 

Wales: Plays with a lot of main roles for both men and women work best. It’s good for morale and for evenly spreading out the line load. Also the story has to be great. It dignifies them and the audience. We all know the difference between an A+ and a C. We know which stories stand the test of time.

Teenagers are growing and they’re voraciously hungry for things that really matter–themes that really matter, stakes that are high enough to help them in the present, in the future, and in understanding their past from a position of greater wisdom and empathy. When my students put on Shakespeare, they feel viscerally connected to their ancestors and to the world. When we circle up before the show, I tell them there have been millions of Titanias. Millions of Malvolios. Millions of Calibans and Festes and Nurses and Second Servants. They feel alive and important-–not depressed, not confused. The audience responds, applauds, congratulates them afterwards, and those kids are forever changed.  

Trull: Have you ever had that magic moment when you see genius seeping from a mere 16-year-old?

Wales: Oh, so many times that I can’t count. They know it, too, because I burst into tears whenever it happens. That is often their goal, now. My John Proctor from our production of The Crucible had never acted before, was brand new to our tight-knit and tiny school community, and had only seen Marvel movies. But he took direction so well that we were able to tap into places in his being and in the cosmos that amazed everyone who got to see it. 

Trull: What do you want your students to take away with them into the world from their experience of drama? 

Wales: I want them to understand themselves and other people better and better with each passing season. I want them to see their own lives as a story worth telling. I want them to be able to name truth, goodness, and beauty when they see it in art, absorb it into themselves, and then share it.  

Trull: How has your Catholic understanding of being human affected the way you view drama?  Do you have any thoughts on the connection of theater to liturgy? Do you think the liturgy is better understood by a student who has experienced theater? 

Wales: I think it informs it entirely. I’m obsessed with the Solzhenitsyn quote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart” as well as the Waugh quote from Brideshead Revisited: “To know all is to forgive all.” I want everyone to see himself or herself and others the way God does-–with mercy and love. And I want to help myself and others to respond to his love with the best art we can make. I feel the same about the liturgy, and I reverted to Catholicism through the beauty of the Tridentine Rite in college. Since then, I have also become more open to other forms of Catholic liturgy which, by experience, have helped people deeply connect with God.

I do think that good/great art is a form of worship, and we learn to love ourselves the way God does when we experience the love of others within an ensemble like a cast or crew who help us to be the best self we can be. And all this mutual help and striving contributes to the success of the whole. The Church is so similar, really. Together we help each other to see and know and honor the God who made us, and that sets us free to serve Him and one another in whatever way our talents suggest. I’m so glad my talent is directing kids in plays because there is nothing more fun. 

Trull: What would you tell a young director just starting out?

Wales: Start with a personal favorite show. That passion will keep you motivated through the inevitable growing pains of a new ensemble and director. And get as much parental help as you can without sacrificing your vision too much. You will be surprised at how willing and ‘all in’ drama parents can be. They are some of the best people in the world.

* * * 

Since our interview, Kathryn has been dreaming and preparing for her next year's production of Les Miserables, her first and quite brave attempt at a musical. I am looking forward to all the conversations we will have about that one! This year will also be a wonderful hallmark in her directing career: her oldest son is now ready to be part of her productions. And thus the magic of theater gets passed down once again from one generation to the next, this “greatest of art forms” taking its honored place among the other arts as a portal through which many will discover the glory of God, fully alive. May there always be someone there to turn the key and open that door anew.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

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