For as long as she can remember, Sheldon Paschal has been singing and dancing her way through life. After growing up in what she calls a “performance family” full of singers, Sheldon studied theater at Clemson University, acted in Chicago, directed an arts nonprofit, and received her masters in theater education from the University of South Carolina. “I love the storytelling nature of theater and how raw and accessible your growth can be on and off stage,” says Sheldon.
Now she shares her passion for drama with the next generation as the musical and technical theater teacher at River Bluff High School. “Theater teaching is very rewarding work,” Sheldon says. “You get to be a part of very formative years for young humans, and that is exciting and challenging. A privilege.”
It’s no secret that this year has proved exceptionally challenging for teachers and students as the COVID-19 health crisis closed school doors across the country this past spring. From tech limitations to show cancellations, theater teachers had to get extra creative to keep their students engaged and learning. In Sheldon’s virtual classroom, this has often meant turning inwards for performance inspiration rather than relying on a script or elaborate costumes and sets.
“Theater is storytelling,” she says, “so we looked at this as an opportunity to tell our own stories and get to know ourselves better.”
Students have been challenged to adapt, reflect, and share, which Sheldon says is an invaluable part of their growth as performers and people. “Students are anxious, and that’s okay, because I do know they’re resilient,” she says. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel; we just have to make sure the tunnel is safe for everyone.”
Alongside theater teacher Kate Parr, Sheldon helps guide roughly 100 plus students at River Bluff through the ups and downs of musical theater production and experiences. When it comes time to start a new show, Sheldon considers her students’ strengths and weaknesses when assigning roles, striving for a balance of personal growth and a stunning production.
“I have to think about who is in the room and who is bringing what skills to the production and ensemble,” Sheldon says. “When we’ve got a roomful of singers, perhaps it’s time for a musical.”
This past spring, River Bluff students planned a production of the classic dark comedy Little Shop of Horrors, which was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, the students collaborated on virtual work, which culminated in end-of-the-year virtual musical performances and explorations.
Despite the change in plans, Sheldon hopes to continue helping her students tackle more conceptual pieces to help expand their abilities.
“It’s getting them to take a work that has been done a ‘bajillion’ times and give it their own style, insight, and flavor,” she says. “That’s the beauty of theater. It’s a living thing. I love films, but as an ensemble in theater, we can conceptualize a familiar show by breathing new life into it. My colleague, Kate Parr, directed a high quality production of Clue this past year, for instance. She collaborated with our orchestra teacher to create the musical score using students to accompany the entire show. What life it gave the production!”
Sheldon specializes in the technical side of theater and appreciates getting to share her expertise with students — which can be unique in a high school program. Having two theater teachers at River Bluff allows for more robust learning in several areas at the school.
“Tech can often fall by the wayside due to lack of resources or because it is so behind-the-scenes that audiences may not realize all that goes into the technical side,” Sheldon says. “But we go deep, designing and building our own sets and programming lights, experiences that are substantial in a high school for production quality and in educating students with application of skills rather than just theory. It’s a craft. We lift that up as a crucial part of production; it’s not just the performance that brings quality. It’s the sum of all these things from the first read through all the way to closing night. It’s the entire process that supports the product.”
During those hours spent building sets, Sheldon gets to know her students in a new way — and they learn about themselves, too.
“Theater is, in my opinion, a study of the human condition, and you can’t really study it without learning about your own,” Sheldon says. “Theater is such a personal experience that it becomes natural and necessary to build trust in the room and on the stage so that students will take risks and find out who they are on purpose.”
And unlike other subjects, teaching theater also comes with its own particular set of challenges. Sandra Dietel, the theater teacher and director at Blythewood High School, could not do her job without support from the community, citing donated use of event space for performances at The Farm at Ridgeway as an example of the generosity she sees. Yet, Sandra is often looking for more support to make her students’ theater visions come to life.
“Putting on a full-scale production is not the same thing as teaching a class — it takes a lot of weekends and late hours,” Sandra says. “You get stretched pretty thin, and often, our budgets don’t come close to what these productions cost.”
Tension also lies in toeing the line of productions that will develop students and those that will bring commercial success. “Metamorphoses is a beautiful piece of literature with rich language and character development, but people don’t necessarily tend to come out for that,” Sandra says. “If you do something like Frozen, everyone loves it. It’s about balancing the two types of shows to offer something for everyone.”
Clearly Sandra is doing something right, with some of her students going on to pursue theater after the lights have gone down on their high school years. Currently, two of her former students are studying theater at the College of Charleston, two at the University of South Carolina, and one at The Studio School in Los Angeles. Another recently acted in a Hallmark Channel movie filmed in Los Angeles, California.
Ultimately, for Sandra, teaching theater to high schoolers is about helping each student grow. “It’s exciting when students find their home in a high school, when they find their people,” Sandra says. “That can make all the difference in a student’s high school experience.”
Long before teenagers hit local stages, many have the chance to flex their theatrical muscles in elementary and middle school theater classes. Melanie Trimble is a drama teacher at Brennen Elementary School. After years working as a theater professional in the mental health world, she decided to shift her focus. For Melanie, working with young children, as opposed to high school or even college drama students, is right up her alley.
“It’s all about human growth and less about aesthetics,” she says. With a master’s degree in drama therapy from New York University, Melanie is more than equipped to use her love of theater to mold young minds.
“The general opinion, professionally, is that formal performance shouldn’t happen much before third or fourth grade,” Melanie says. “The stress of performing can undermine the growth that can happen.”
Melanie’s classroom instead focuses on exploring aspects of theatrical expression, like conveying emotion through voice and facial mannerisms and engaging the imagination. “It’s important to teach children to know how they’re presenting themselves through aspects like body language,” Melanie says. “That, in later years, can develop into an understanding of acting and of using movement intentionally.”
Younger students also explore storytelling, using props like puppets and masks to develop ideas and take some of the pressure off sharing their stories. Though some of these skills are trickier to perfect in a virtual classroom, Melanie has continued teaching her students basic theater concepts like imagination and narration through storytelling videos and slideshows.
“My goal is not to make them all want to be actors but to make them all comfortable speaking up in front of others and imagining elaborations on any given circumstance,” Melanie says, adding that throughout the pandemic, she has kept her lessons focused on celebrating joy.
Drama classes can play a key role in the crucial social and emotional learning that occurs during elementary years. “I have seen children go from literally not speaking at all to standing on a stage in front of 500 people and saying at least one sentence out loud alone,” Melanie says. “I think that level of confidence boosting is so important for these kids.”
For those who want to further explore the world of theater beyond elementary school, drama programs are more plentiful at the next level. Sarah Kate Calcutt has been a theater educator and musical theater director at Lexington Middle School since 2014. Her decision to pursue teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth graders was influenced by her own experience navigating the ups and downs of her preteen years.
“The only theater teacher I had growing up was in middle school, and she made such a big impact on me in those formative years,” Sarah Kate says. “I wanted to pay it forward to as many students as I could. Kids not only find theater a safe place to explore different ways of being, but it’s also a safe place for them to truly relax and be themselves without judgment.”
And because not much theater material is written for middle school students, Sarah Kate pushes her students to tell their own stories through their performances. “We write a lot of our own stuff,” she says. “We have a whole class built around writing our own show based on a fairy tale.”
Sarah Kate estimates that about 75 percent of the students who come through her classrooms go on to pursue high school theater. Either way, she knows she has done her job preparing them for the next step, teaching them the basics on every aspect from theater history to acting and set design.
“I give a lot of ownership to kids,” Sarah Kate says, “and giving them that ownership and putting them in the driver’s seat makes them proud of what they put on stage, regardless of where they take it in the future.”
Drama students at Dreher High School have a pretty packed schedule each year, and that is just how Kathleen Pennyway likes it. But the busyness is purposeful. “I really believe that as an educator, my job is helping my students become better humans first and better theater artists second,” says Kathleen, drama director at Dreher and lead theater teacher for Richland County School District One.
In addition to three major productions each year — a musical, a winter play, and a senior directing festival — students participate in theater competitions throughout the country.
This past February, Kathleen’s students took home several awards from the 2020 High School Festival at Dorman High School in Spartanburg. The annual festival is hosted by the Palmetto Dramatic Association and the South Carolina International Thespians. Thirteen students from Dreher qualified to compete at the International Thespian Festival in June, the most Kathleen has seen in her five years at the school.
The festival was ultimately hosted online, and four Dreher students received superior ratings in individual events. Celebrity actors, including Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey, even showed their support for students at the virtual festival during a time when many professional theater actors are out of work.
The cherry on top: Dreher’s play was chosen to represent all South Carolina high school drama programs at the virtual competition. For Kathleen, it was an even bigger thrill because her students had taken a bit of a risk with the play they presented, Student Body, written by Frank Winters.
“I cried so much, I was a sobbing mess,” Kathleen says. “I was particularly proud of this bunch of kids because it’s a really heavy play. It deals with a difficult topic: sexual assault.”
Though she was initially hesitant to produce the show, Kathleen says it was her students who requested the opportunity to take on the production, turning down other scripts in favor of Student Body. The play was reviewed and approved by the school’s administration prior to production and performance.
“Each of those kids grew a tremendous amount and handled a difficult topic with grace and maturity,” Kathleen says. “They were really brave, and that means more to me than anything. This is an important story, one they wanted to tell.”
No matter the show, Kathleen always demands her students consider the relevance of their productions. “If we’re going to put something out, I don’t want it to just be a story that you could see anywhere. I want it to mean something to the audience and the people on the stage,” Kathleen says.
For each show, Kathleen’s students conduct dramaturgical research to ensure relevance and accuracy. When they performed Fiddler on the Roof, students studied Russian culture and Jewish history, and for Seussical, they took a deep dive into the life and literature of Dr. Seuss. “I want students to understand the world and what we’re putting on stage,” Kathleen says.
To lead these charges, Kathleen relies on her top students to facilitate conversation and foster a positive atmosphere in the program as well as get things done. Each year, Dreher drama students elect 10 of their peers to a student leadership board. These board members fill traditional office roles as well as take responsibility for running rehearsals, coordinating costumes, managing social media accounts, and even publicizing productions.
“If I were to do everything or get adults to do it, I don’t think I would see as much artistry from the students,” says Kathleen, who is always quick to give credit to her students for their program’s success.
Now, these students are tackling the challenge of making program decisions amidst the uncertainty of the new school year. Though theater programs across the region are taking set building and performance schedules one week at a time this year, teachers like Kathleen are certainly hopeful.
“I really believe that young people are the solution and not the problem,” Kathleen says. “The young people I know are articulate and passionate and ready to change the world. They can do anything that you will allow them to do.”