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You can never have too much drama

by: , Joe Theissen, who teaches drama at Lake Oswego Junior High, believes strongly in the importance of the arts in public education.

'Teaching, for me, is truly a labor of love,' Lake Oswego Junior High School drama teacher Joe Theissan confides. 'It's something I gave up a lot to do. I gave up a higher paying job to do it. I went into a lot of debt to get this. So, I really count my blessings every day that I go into school. I love my job, I love my kids and I love everything about what I do.'

Growing up in Portland, Theissan was influenced by his dad and step-mom (both teachers) and mom (owner of an educational company called Mad Science). He studied theatre and music in high school, which helped secure a voice scholarship when he went to Linfield College in McMinnville. After graduating with a degree in music theory and composition, he worked for his mom for awhile before landing a corporate job and spending his days in a cubicle.

Then, he received a phone call from Julie Accuardi, his Wilson High School drama teacher. She was directing a production of 'Camelot' and wondered if he could help some of the boys with their vocals.

'I walked into my previous high school and I saw the stage and these kids rehearsing and parents there and people in the costume shop sewing costumes and the orchestra and I thought, 'Oh my gosh. This is what I should be doing. This is exactly what I want to do.' And within two weeks of that day, I had applied for graduate school, given notice at my job and found out my wife was pregnant with my now five-year-old son. So, we had a lot of change in 2001 and 2002.'

Theissan acknowledges it was a scary time. His son Peyton was born during the middle of graduate school. He and his wife Amanda took out a mortgage on their home to pay the bills for a year. His student loans pushed them into debt.

Now, with the scary times behind him, Theissan is committed and passionate in his role as a drama teacher. He's so committed and passionate about teaching youth drama, in fact, he wants to do it all year round.

Enter 7 Stages Theatre Company, Theissan's brainchild (although he's reluctant to claim it as his own - 'Even though it started as my own kernel, I'm not alone in developing it. I can't say that it was fully my idea because it takes validation and affirmation and people saying to you, 'If that's your dream, then you can do that'').

So, with an army of people behind him and a partnership from Lake Oswego Community Schools, Theissan has developed 7 Stages with the intention of bringing professional youth theatre to Lake Oswego. This is partly a response to the many requests he receives every year from students and parents wanting to continue putting on shows after the school year ends and not wanting to drive to Portland to do so.

What differentiates a metropolitan area like Portland from somewhere such as, say, New York City, Theissan explains, is that there is no competition amongst the theaters. Theissan is a huge advocate for the theatre already offered (Northwest Children's Theater, Blue Monkey Theater, Lakewood Theatre Company, Broadway Rose Theatre Company), and says that his theater will supplement, rather than take away, from what is already a thriving theatrical and artistic community. 7 Stages will cater to an in-between age group, giving students a chance to play a range of roles and learn from some of the greatest professional talents in the area.

'Theatre is an evolutionary force,' Theissan explains on the Web site for 7 Stages (www.7stagesTC.org), noting the company's name derives from a speech delivered by the character Jacques in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It,' which explains the seven stages of human life. 'Young performers grow through the arts and are impacted by their experiences at perhaps the most transitional and ever-changing period of their lives.'

Theissan encourages 12 to 18-year-olds who are focused and passionate about theatre to apply for this summer's camp. Thirty performers will be selected, as well as 10 technical students. Those chosen will participate in an intensive two-week workshop. Mornings will be spent learning about everything from stage combat to makeup to dialect from five instructors (Theissan is joined by a cast of theatre professionals who have worked in Portland and beyond - John Armour, Andrew Bray, Mary Rochon and Luisa Sermol.) During the afternoons, students will rehearse 'High School Musical,' which will be performed for the public and free of charge, Saturday and Sunday, June 28 and 29, in the Lake Oswego High School Auditorium.

Program cost is $455 per student. Two 50 percent need-based scholarships will be offered.

By the summer of 2009, Theissan hopes to offer a less intensive, more affordable camp. Rather than six back-to-back workshops, students will be able to pick their classes, 'more cafeteria-style.' He wants to spend this year fundraising, so that next year, he can 'mount a season of main stage productions with city-wide auditions and paid performers and professional musicians.'

As someone who knows firsthand about the value of a theatrical education, Theissan is ready to take on anyone who believes arts in the schools are expendable.

'The arts - whether it's music, theater, individual arts or whatever - should be treated just like athletics, because I think that all these life skills kids learn in athletics, they can also learn, perhaps even more so, in the arts.'

Lake Oswego, he acknowledges, is lucky to have so much, when school theater programs at large are being drastically cut down. Even so, Theissan says there are times when it's still overwhelming.

'Let's say a school is lucky enough to have a full-time drama teacher,' Theissan says. 'That would be like having one coach for the athletic department. And that's not enough. One coach can't provide opportunities for a whole high school's worth of athletes. You need more than one drama teacher to provide opportunities for a whole school's worth of kids who are passionate about the arts.'

Theissan attributes parents, volunteers and friends for picking up whatever he lacks in manpower. His friend Mary Ann Noack has been particularly helpful, Theissan says. The 7 Stages Advisory Board members were hand-selected by Theissan (Andrew Bray, Kristi Foster, Courtney Freed, Dan Hailiberg, Rick Lewis, Alan Lytle, Amy Palomino, Luisa Sermol, Jill Westerby) because 'that list of names represents the most significant and trusted influences in my career as a performer.'

It may take a village to put on a show and he may be reluctant to take too much credit for himself, but Theissan is clearly making his mark as a teacher, role model and advocate for youth, the arts and the Lake Oswego community.

Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer. To view her blog, visit www.krissymick.blogspot.com .