Five Five-Star Theatre Programs

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Feature
Libertyville put on Cats in their 2007-2008 season
Presents the winners of Its inaugural HS Theatre Honors Program.

Choosing the five best high school theatre programs in the country is as daunting a task as it appears. But Stage Directions proudly presents these five by region, and no one can dispute that they are all outstanding programs. They have much in common: amazing, talented teachers to be sure, but every single recipient of this honor was quick to point to an exceptionally supportive administration and a fearless group of parents who could shame Texas high school football parent groups for their unbridled enthusiasm and devotion to the theatre.

Libertyville High School
Libertyville, Ill.

Technical Director Kevin Holly is in his 21st year of teaching and his 12th at Liberty High, but he speaks with the enthusiasm of someone just starting out. “We have an incredibly supportive administration,” he says. “Everyone from the school board to the parents.”

Holly and Director Tim Frawley put on four shows a year: a musical in the fall, a play in the winter and spring, and then in late winter, a student-directed one-act festival. The school has 2,000 kids and also boasts a remarkable music department, Holly tells. The theatre uses ETC Source Fours and controls them with an ETC Insight 3 Console. A Soundcraft K2 audio outputs to mostly JBL and Ramsa speakers.

“I maintain the theatre, design the sets and lights, teach a tech class occasionally and direct the winter play,” Holly says. “Tim Frawley teaches acting classes and directs the other two productions. But the kids do 98% of the work.”

And they are enthusiastic as well. He says that recently 100 kids auditioned for one of their shows. Then they typically have 30 to 40 kids in the tech crew and another 30 to 35 playing in the pit orchestra. This year, Libertyville is doing West Side Story, 12 Angry Jurors (aka 12 Angry Men) and Pride and Prejudice.

“We have former students that work for Upstaging, and a recent graduate of the school is now [performing with] Blue Man Group,” he says. In addition to that they have former students all over the country acting, doing technical work, and on TV.

John Sullivan
Barnstable High School
Hyannis, Mass.

John Sullivan does double-duty at Barnstable High School: He’s the drama coach, but also an art teacher who incorporates animation and stagecraft in his curriculum. He majored in illustration and minored in film as an undergrad before going on to get a master’s in education. Today, his responsibilities include putting on two full musical productions, plus a haunted house fundraiser in October. “That’s one of the most elaborate things we do,” he says of the Halloween event. “We teach kids how to do makeup and create specialized costumes. But whatever we do, we teach kids to do it the right way.”

Barnstable's recent production of The Wizard of Oz had a cast of over 300.
The school’s theatre is the largest high school auditorium in New England. It has 1,400 seats and a 50-foot proscenium. It uses an ETC lighting console, Mackie Onyx mixer and Peavey speakers. All the technical students get trained extensively in rigging, set construction, lighting and audio for at least four years.

Last September, Warner Brothers told Sullivan they were looking for a high school to film a series of eight short episodes of a high school production that would appear on the Web. “They followed us around and filmed 360 hours of footage, which was edited down to a total of 90 minutes, then divided into 12 segments,” he explains. “They gave a nice donation to the school for us to do that. Also, we got to sign up for a sequel, so if it’s a hit, we’ll be back!” The show recently debuted online and can be seen at

Mo Mershon
Bishop Blanchet High School
Seattle, Wash.

Yes, Bishop Blanchet is a Catholic High School. Yes, they did recently stage The Laramie Project, which had been banned by Seattle’s public schools.

“It’s awesome here,” says drama teacher Mo Mershon. “You would think being a Catholic school would be restrictive, but we really push the envelope. The school administration really supports the arts and so does the community. We feel very appreciated.”

Mershon was an equity actress by age 19, performing in New York and L.A. In 1991, she moved to Seattle and started her own theatre company and from there “fell into teaching.”

The "Crime of the Century" number from Bishop Blanchet's production of Ragtime
Today, she has 350 kids involved in her theatre arts program performing shows in two on-campus theatres. The black box holds 100, and the main theatre holds 1,000. They have ETC and GrandMA lighting console boards. The department has 4,000 pieces of costumes.

Typically, they do a big fall production, a one-act festival in January and then a big musical in the spring. “This year, we didn’t do a fall play because we were working on A Christmas Carol the Musical.” Often their productions end up in one of Seattle’s professional theatres, placed on a bill right alongside the professional touring companies that perform there.

Many of the students have gone out into the professional arts world, and frequently she receives e-mails from them about their successes. “The coolest note we got lately was from one of our kids telling us she has become a professional aerialist with Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

Ken Rush
West Orange High School
West Orange, Fla.

There are lots of numbers to use when sizing up a high school theatre program, but here’s West Orange’s: five. That’s the number of former West Orange High School students currently performing on Broadway.

The school’s theatre teacher, Ken Rush, like to point out that West Orange is an “ordinary” high school and not a performing arts magnet. “Those kids have typically taken theatre classes before entering the school’s doors, whereas I get kids the freshman year who have never stepped foot in a theatre,” Rush says. “So, when they accomplish something, it’s a big accomplishment.”

Coincidentally, Rush started his teaching career at West Orange High School in Texas. He’s taught for a quarter of a century with one year “off” — in 2000, he performed in a national touring company’s production of Jekyll and Hyde. “It was great for many reasons, including that I felt I brought some new information back to the kids.”

A scene from West Orange High's production of Equus
West Orange’s program includes a beginning acting class that is open to all students and a Drama I class that incoming freshman have to audition for. Everything is student-driven. “One of my kids became an actor in a repertory theatre, and when they made him put in time as a tech, they were surprised how good he was. He told them, ‘at my school, we learn everything.’” The school’s theatre seats 900, and the gear found in it include an ETC Express Board and Peavey Audio Gear.

Recent productions include Agnes of God, Children of a Lesser God, Footloose, King and I and Grease. They often put dramas they do in competition, and have come in first place six out of the last 10 years in state contests.

“Technically, the students are trained from the ground up and learn to run all the equipment,” Rush says. Sewing is taught, as well as stagecraft. And when it’s show time, Rush is found in the audience enjoying the production like everyone else. If there’s a problem backstage, the students must think on their feet. “They are learning problem-solving skills and how to work with people,” he says. “Drama is the only class they will use every day of their life no matter what career they choose.”

Glenn Edwards
Las Vegas Academy Theatre
Las Vegas, Nev.     

“We just did a production of Sweeney Todd at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska,” says Glenn Edwards, one of six theatre teachers at the Las Vegas Academy. If you’re thinking “Sweeney Todd… for high school kids?” You’re not alone. This was a special production, as Music Theatre International, which holds the rights to this and a lot of adult-themed scripts, had selected this school to work on a special version of the dark, adult musical that could translate to teens. It’s not the first or probably the last time Las Vegas Academy is asked to pilot such a program. And what an opportunity: On this and others they get to work with the original authors and composers and start with the original script and then taper it for the appropriate audience yet ensure it’s still working.

Las Vegas Academy is an arts magnet and students from all over the country come to audition to get in. It does four main stage shows a season and two black box shows. One of the theatres holds 1,300 and was built with the school in the 1950s. It has recently been renovated and fitted with state-of-the-art theatre technology. There’s another 700-seat theatre that was just build three years ago that is also enviable. A total of 250 students study all aspects of the theatre arts at the school.

A moment from the Academy's 2003-2004 production of Jekyll and Hyde
“We teach a four-year sequential acting program, and the classes are 90 minutes,” explains Edwards, who’s been at the academy since 1995. “We offer various electives in musical theatre, mime, improve, Shakespeare, etc.” The technical classes are set up similarly with electives in costuming, stage management, theatre technology and more.

Recent projects include Grapes of Wrath, Elephant Man, Les Misérables and Beauty and the Beast. “This year, we’re doing The Wiz — and this is all in addition to some comedies and a couple of smaller shows we do in the black box.”

The school has a long list of former students making their way in the professional theatre world. “So many go on to become working professionals, and we have kids in TV shows like Criminal Minds, on Broadway, and in movies.”