Students in the Spotlight
Theater at Marshall Middle School is an opportunity for students to find their passion for performance. Whether their favorite role is on stage or behind the scenes, on-script or improvised, there’s a chance to learn, grow, and have fun doing it. Director Jeff Russell’s goal is to lead a student-oriented, student-driven department, and students have a hand in every step of productions, from set design and costume sourcing to creating programs and selling concessions. Read along to find out more.
Q&A with Director Jeff Russell
What is the mission of the theater department at your school?
First and foremost, we are trying to maintain a program that promotes a love for theater and positive attitudes toward the challenging work that goes into every theater production. Students are always going to be at the forefront and the faces of our program, and it will always be their hands-on work that is being presented on and off of the stage.
What is the history of the department? How has it evolved or grown over the years?
I took over as the theater teacher at Marshall in 2009, my third year at the school. We started with one theater class. In the 2012-2013 school year we were at three theater classes, but produced nine shows in the school year, including a school-wide open audition production of Grease. In 2014, we moved to having three distinct theater courses: sixth grade wheel (where students take the class for nine weeks of the 36 week school year), Regular Theater (standard comedies and dramas), and Musical Theater. Then, in the 2015-2016 school year, I earned a College, Career, and Technical Education credential in Arts, Media, and Entertainment and we were able to create a Technical Theater Class. That class is now in its third year and has two sections.
What theater clubs are available?
We have an active Junior Thespian Troupe with a charter from the Educational Theatre Association. They meet weekly to practice improvisational acting, and we are typically the only middle school to attend the county’s Improv Festival.
What is your role in the department, and what does that entail?
I am the only faculty member in the department. I am also the chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department for the school. I choose the plays for each class to produce and perform – choosing not only shows that are age- and content-appropriate, but ones that are within our production scale and that will also hopefully be entertaining to audiences. I organize fundraising, I handle purchasing everything that is needed for each production, hold auditions, cast shows, write blocking, direct, oversee our contracted choreographer and vocal director, make countless trips to Home Depot, and do maintenance on our theater space. In tech theater, I work with students in designing sets, lights, and sound. Technical theater, for a majority of our work time, turns into a wood-shop class and then a painting studio since our students design, build, and paint all of our sets in-house.
What is your professional background, and what sparked your interest in working with middle school students?
I started working seriously in my high school theater at Clairemont High School when I was a freshman. My theater teacher, Stacey Allen, is now teaching at La Jolla High School and was an indispensable part of my theater education. High school is where I learned how to design, hang, and focus lighting. I also learned how to build and paint sets as well as how to run a theatrical production. In college I minored in theater and continued to build on my high school skills – learning how to direct a show and write blocking was the most important thing that I learned in college for my job now. When I began working at Marshall, I taught sixth and seventh grade English. I sought out the theater teacher at the time, Joyce Sullivant, and asked for ways that I could help and support the program. I began helping with their lighting design and operation and even made a cameo or two with other staff members in some short scenes. When she chose to retire in June of 2009, she was kind enough to recommend me to take over the class – that kind gesture has shaped my life in an incredible way and I cannot begin to explain how much I still appreciate it.
At-A-Glance | Theater Director
Name: Jeff Russell
Education: Bachelor’s in English, San Diego State University
Community: Clairemont, San Diego
Hobbies & Interests: Theater
Family: Wife – Suzanne; daughter – Fiona (3)
Favorite Places in 92131: The Falcon Playhouse, Jean’s house, Kappa Sushi
What has been the most rewarding part of your role? The most challenging?
The most rewarding thing about my job is giving students who otherwise can’t find the right place to be or the right niche a place to fit in and be themselves. People often characterize theater and drama students as being the weird or crazy ones – I think they’re the ones that people just don’t get. They need a place where they can not only be themselves, but they also get opportunities to be someone else. That’s one of the beauties of theater. You have students who in other classes won’t say two words, but you put them onstage in a costume, as a character, with lines to recite, and they transform.
The most challenging thing is always the hours required for theater. It does put a bit of a strain on my family, but I am lucky to have a wife who is incredibly supportive. The other big challenge is changing the culture of the class from something that people want to just try and move on from to something that people are desperately wanting to do. My classes are the kind where you can take them for three years, even if it’s the same course, and you will get something completely different each time. Every year the basic skills stay the same, but you use them in new ways and you get better and better at them. Theater is not a hobby, it’s a way of life.
“Theater is not a hobby, it’s a way of life.”
Who designs the sets and costumes for the school’s shows?
Technical theater students are given parameters of what sets are required for each show and then they design their sets on paper. Then, they will go through a submission and feedback process with me. They make changes until the set design is approved. Finally, they build the required flats and pieces. The goal is for the students to have as much creative control and input as possible. Costumes are outlined to the students by me – I give them a general idea of what each character should be wearing and look like, and then the actors are tasked with coming up with what the final costume pieces will look like, if they need to be purchased, if they can be brought from home or borrowed, etc. Some shows will have very straightforward costume requirements, like our winter show, Elf the Musical, Jr. We obviously needed Buddy the Elf’s costume as well as Santa Claus. But, if there is room for interpretation, students are given the chance to make creative decisions for their costumes.
How many productions do you put on a year? What type of productions do you generally put on?
We now do eight shows every year. There are four sixth grade wheel classes that come through in a nine-week rotation. Each one of those classes does a different show. Those are performed during the school day and free of charge for parents, friends, and family to attend.
The other four shows are two standard full length plays – either two comedies or a comedy and a drama. Then we do two musicals each year.
Can you tell us about any upcoming productions? Where can readers find tickets?
The next show is by a playwright I have used many times, Don Zolidis, and is titled, Mutually Assured Destruction: 10 Plays About Brothers and Sisters. That show takes place in 10 scenes, each set in 10 decades (2015, 2002, 1993, 1985, 1977, 1968, 1955, 1944, 1936, and 1922). The play is a comedy about the joys of the relationships between brothers and sisters and how those kinds of relationships transcend time.
March 20 to 23, we are bringing back The Wizard of Oz – the version based on the 1939 MGM movie starring Judy Garland.
April 24 to 27 will be our final major show. We are doing another Don Zolidis play titled Empowered: How One Girl Scout Nearly Destroyed the World’s Economy. This play is another comedy and is about how a girl learns to be devious in order to be the winner of a cookie sales contest. It all hits a boiling point once she creates a worldwide organization that sells her cookies for the purpose of paying for the treatment of a fictitious terminal illness. All of this in order to win a unicorn.
There is a link on the Marshall website – www.marshallmiddle.org – in order to purchase tickets online (with no surcharges or ticket fees). If anyone wants more information about the show or our theater program, they can email me at email@example.com.
Are there any ways for the community to get involved?
Come see our shows! We also have a program to adopt seats in our theater space. Please email me if you are interested!
Do you have any favorite memories or experiences at Marshall Middle School?
My favorite memories are always the same – closing shows is my favorite thing. My students get sad and find it hard to move onto the next production, or the realization that it will be their last with me. I’m always looking at the next project, the next puzzle to overcome. When you close a show, you can look back on all of the amazing things you had to do in order to get there.
My other favorite thing is when parents say, “I don’t know how you do this!” My response is always the same, “I don’t know what else I would do!” I love my job, tiring or not. I could never imagine doing anything else.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The only reason the theater program has become what it is, is the support that I have received from so many people and so many places. My wife has been nothing but supportive of my work and the work of my students. She is home with our daughter, after finishing a full day of teaching as well, while I am still at work overseeing a production. My principal, Michelle Irwin, has always been an amazing supporter of the work we do in the theater. She comes to every single production and has nothing but praise for the hard work of every student involved. I also want to mention how supportive the teachers and staff members are. Jean Chalupsky lends us her classroom as a dressing room, and Luke Schulze, our choir teacher, gives up one prep period a week to handle vocal work for musical theater.
The parents in our community have a clear dedication to the arts as well. Every year I teach theater, I have more and more students who are telling me that they are seeking out more theater programs to become a part of – which I absolutely support. Our theater is not the only one in town and if you want to be great at something, you need to find different places in which to practice and participate.
Finally, but most importantly, I have amazing students. They take the class, they prepare for and complete auditions, performance projects, and full scale productions, and all with a smile on their faces. Without them, there would be no theater program and I always try to keep that in perspective when the work or students become challenging. I always tell them that if it was always easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing, and theater is definitely not easy.