In his 30 years teaching Theatre at Stanton College Preparatory, Jeff Grove has helped cultivate the next generation of talented actors, directors, set designers, playwrights and educators. But no student marked him as deeply as Melissa, a young girl he met during his college teaching internship. Labeled by the state as educationally handicapped, Melissa was able to attend one mainstream class outside of her special education curriculum.
Grove wasn’t sure how she had ended up in drama. She was terrified by the notion of standing in front of the class, much less performing. One project involved the adaptation of traditional fairy tales for performance. Somehow, with gentle nudging, Grove says he was able to get Melissa to accept the small role of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
All she had to do was to lie on a cot, be dragged out of bed by the wolf, scream, and be thrown into a dressing cabinet. At first, that was way too much for Melissa, and she kept trying to back out of the project. Melissa grew even more frightened when she learned the class would perform the show at the elementary school that she and most of her classmates had attended.
“When the time came, she pulled off the part perfectly, giving us a wonderfully blood-curdling scream. And when the show was over, she was beaming with happiness, as was I,” recalls Grove. “There were far more talented and eager students in the class than Melissa, and you could argue that many of them gave better performances in our show than she did, but she remains special in my mind because she did far more – and far better – than anyone would have expected of her. For once, she was proud of something that she had done. To me, that kind of success is priceless.”
For Grove, he pursued teaching theatre to discover fresh talent but it was also about helping students discover themselves and realize their full potential on and off the stage. “I love the moments when I see those metaphorical cartoon light bulbs go on over students’ heads as they “get” something I’ve been trying to show them. But there’s a big responsibility that goes with that,” he says.
“Theatre is a highly personal subject that demands a willingness to be vulnerable in public. Theatre teachers, therefore, grow very close to their students and very protective of them. Sometimes we become extra parents, or at least extra guidance counselors, trying to guide young people through the emotional minefields of adolescence. As they discover themselves, they find the artists within themselves, and that’s the true reward of the profession.”
While many Jacksonville youngsters are well-versed in film and television shows, Grove says he finds that they have seen surprisingly little live theatre. Each year at Stanton’s Open House, he tells his students’ parents that the one thing they can do to help their children excel in his class is to make it possible for them to see live theatre outside of school. “It’s a very different experience when the actors are right there in the room with you, making the magic happen in real time with no retakes and no CGI effects,” he says. “If we want this art form to continue, we have to make sure that young people are exposed to it, so that those who have the talent for it have the chance to develop a passion for it, and to begin perfecting the craft that makes talent take wing.”
It’s never too early to be exposed to the magic of live theatre. Kirsten Carmody vividly recalls her first theatre experience which was also the first time she realized that she wanted to be an actress. She saw a local children’s performing troupe, The Hurrah Players, perform a production of Star-mites. “It was an unusual and campy musical. From that moment on, the performing arts have been a key part of my life,” Carmody says. “Going to see live theatre is a very different experience than going to see movies. The show is alive and breathing where anything can happen. When I see performers, young or old, seasoned or novice, putting their heart and soul into their performances, and that is what continues to inspire me.”
Carmody, who teaches theatre at Fletcher Middle School, was in middle school when she was cast in an AEA production of Annie at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre. That experience started her on the journey of being a professional actress and helps her better relate to the middle school experience of trying to fit in and finding a place to belong.
“Getting them to think about something foreign, like getting up in front of other kids and speaking, can be a challenge,” she says. “I try and coax my most nervous students along with encouragement and scaffolding them with baby steps from roles where they are silent with little responsibility to larger speaking roles where they have to truly become the character. Once they realize that it can be fun, and not terrifying, they become easier to engage.”
Last year marked Carmody’s first year teaching drama in public schools. She decided to do a one act with each of her four acting classes. Most of the kids had never been onstage in their lives and one of the plays was made entirely of monologues. Just having those kids get up onstage and make it through their first performance was a success for students and teacher alike.
“Sometimes they just need “permission” to shed their own personality and become someone else on stage. It’s really amazing to watch these “child actors” blossom and become fearless performers,” she says. “I’ve heard from the academic teachers that the students have become more comfortable doing presentations and oral reports in front of their peers since drama became a program at FMS. That makes me happy, because I know I’m making a difference in their success in areas outside of the arts as well. I know that not every theatre kid will become a professional performer but theatre as a program, truly is helping to create a well-rounded, empathetic, cooperative, creative mind within each child.”
Kevin Covert’s high school theatre experience was nothing like the intense curriculum that he teaches to his students at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. “I think my high school theatre did two plays the entire four years I was there. At Douglas Anderson, as a performing arts school, there are four fully produced shows each year, two on the main stage and two in the black box theatre,” he says. “It is interesting to see how much material can be covered while also allowing students time to rehearse and explore the material.”
As a graduate of Florida State University’s Musical Theatre program, Covert was prepared for a career in Theatre but didn’t realize how gratifying it would be to give back. After a turn in the original cast of the Broadway musicals “Spamalot” and “Memphis” and the most recent revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Covert was invited by Kate Gelabert, head of FSU’s Musical Theatre department, to serve as an adjunct for a semester and choreograph the university’s production of “How to Succeed.”
“That’s when I fell in love with teaching,” he says. He is now in his first full year of teaching theatre at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts after joining the faculty in April, 2014. When Kevin Covert made his Broadway debut, Gelabert was his date opening night.
Grove earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his teachers included David Rotenberg, currently operating the Professional Actors Lab in Toronto, and Gregory Boyd, currently serving as artistic director of the Alley Theatre in Houston. Locally, he has appeared at Theatre Jacksonville, Players by the Sea, Jacksonville University’s music and theatre departments, The 5 & Dime, and the now-defunct River City Playhouse. Grove has also co-authored seven published one-act plays that have collectively received 381 productions in 43 U.S. states and five foreign countries.
“My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Peterson, encouraged my creative writing by reading my work aside from class assignments and offering constructive criticism. Sometimes now when I’m writing plays I hear her voice in the back of my head productively questioning my choices,” he says. “My ninth-grade history teacher, Mrs. Harrell, instilled in me a love of the past with her ability to make it come alive in the present and if that isn’t theatre, I don’t know what is. My own high-school drama teacher, Mrs. Waddell, took a cocky kid who thought he already knew everything there was to know about theatre, rightfully took him down quite a few pegs in order to show him how much he still had to learn, and then started over from the beginning and built him up.”
Covert is grateful for the opportunity to infuse his own teaching methods and acting style in his approach to his students. That is what they will encounter in the acting world and the real word. Every director will envision a project in different way just as every workplace will have its own set of policies and personalities. Having the ability to face challenging situations with confidence is an invaluable skill regardless of the profession.
“I think for the student that is interested in pursuing musical theatre or technical theatre, the training here gives them a little bit of a leg up having taken four years of intensive acting study. For the kids that love theatre but don’t want to pursue acting, there are other avenues we really try and expose them to like producing, arts management, stage management, things on the other side of the stage,” he says. “For me, more than anything, it’s an opportunity to produce lifelong lovers of the arts and theatre, those who may hopefully be the next generation of patrons of the arts.”
While many of these teachers’ former students have gone on to do amazing work both on and off the theatre stage, others are finding equal success as attorneys, ministers, teachers, and “other types of professionals whose work depends on an ability to communicate well and clearly with other people.”
“I’d like to think that studying theatre in school helped to bring them some of the success that they have enjoyed in their non-theatrical careers,” Grove says. “More importantly, employers today aren’t looking for workers who can recite any number of memorized facts; instead, they want people who can work cooperatively as a team to find creative solutions to complex problems and situations. Theatre does exactly that, so when students study theatre in school, they learn vital life and work skills that will transfer well into the economy of this century.”
Grove, Covert and Carmody are all doing their part to provide a creative outlet, a place to belong and explore and the tools to learn how to cooperate with one another, work together to achieve the putting together of a performance, and develop the public speaking skills that will serve them well in the future in whatever they choose to do. But as performing arts and music programs continue to face nationwide cuts, they are all helping to preserve and protect the performing arts in schools for future generations of actors and appreciators. For Covert, the answer is simple. “Imagine a world without it.”