You Raise Me (and a Tent) Up

A director without a theatre. Not as dramatic as a man without a country, but daunting nonetheless. I knew when I accepted the position of Upper School drama director that the Virginia Henes Young Theatre would be unavailable for at least the first semester of this year, due to construction as part of the Our Common Bond campaign. When Head of Upper School Stuart Cushman gave me a tour of the theatre last May, before construction had started, he enthusiastically and vividly described what the ensuing renovation would produce—more seats, dressing room space, instrumental classrooms in close proximity, a lobby celebrating art, and more. I could see it, and myself in it.

“No problem … it will be worth the wait … we can be creative …” All of the right things came out of my mouth at the time, and I meant them. And now that I am in the midst of construction, I still mean every word. This is because of the supportive, innovative, collaborative USM community. I have found this to be a professional organization that walks what it talks, more than any other institution I have been part of in all my many years of working in both the education and corporate worlds.

“What if we did the fall play in a tent?”

I threw that thought out there in September as Ellen Shuler (Fine Arts Department chair), Jeremy Woods (theatre technical director), and I were discussing where to perform the October play. Immediately, Ellen championed the idea to Head of School Laura Fuller and Assistant Head of School Gregg Bach, who both instantly embraced the notion and set us in motion to make it happen. From there we were supported by everyone: Upper School colleagues and administration, security, maintenance, facilities, our Flik food service partners, parents and the Parents’ Association, Lower School and Middle School faculty, administration, and students … the entire USM community raised the tent (some of them literally) and our show went on.

Maripat gave Upper School thespians direction during the dress rehearsal for “The Dining Room.”

“The Dining Room” by A.R. Gurney was the perfect play to do in an intimate space in-the-round, and the students adapted to the unusual circumstances and a new director like pros. The whole play-in-a-tent experience fueled my already strong and determined commitment to enhance the Upper School theatre program. During our theatre tour that May afternoon, Stuart shared his vision of USM being known and respected for all three of the “A’s” it offers, wanting the arts to be on par with our academics and athletics. Working in this culture and with this caliber of students, I know it can and will be done.

Growing the program

This March we are producing the musical “A Chorus Line,” and I want to use the show to start to increase the number of theatre participants, which already is a notable amount. One of my goals is to create more crossover—giving students who normally don’t have the time or inclination to join a show the opportunity to experience what it is like to be part of the newly named Wildcat Theatre Company. I am opening up the show’s closing number to all Upper School students and 8th graders, parents, faculty, staff, alumni … it will involve learning simple choreography and music via video, and attending only one rehearsal. I know this experience will spark the “theatre bug” in some students, and will at least create understanding and respect for just how hard and collaboratively the theatre students work to make it all look so easy.

USM students are the finest I have ever had the pleasure to direct. The entire school community has raised me up and has inspired me to want to be my best, and offer the best. I know it all can and will happen here. With all of this, who needs a theatre? Well okay, I do—eventually.

Maripat Wilkinson is the Upper School drama director and an English teacher. Read more about the Our Common Bond campaign at www.USMOurCommonBond.org.

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