My day at King Kekaulike High School
Over the next several months, members of the EdTA staff, alone or in pairs, are spending time observing and meeting with professional members in their classrooms and rehearsal halls. The project was initiated by Executive Director Julie Woffington to help the staff engage with membership and refresh their understanding of the professional lives of theatre educators. From time to time, some staff members will recount their experiences here. Today, assistant membership manager Ginny Butsch talks about her day with Chris Kepler, a theatre teacher at King Kekaulike High School in Pukalani, Hawaii.
As I walked through the massive courtyard of King Kekaulike High School, I marveled at the open classrooms without air conditioning. Nestled at the base of the Haleakala crater, students socialized in the sunshine while various school personnel surveyed the grounds from golf carts, accustomed to the incredible view on the island of Maui.
I walked through the yellow door to organized chaos, this was definitely the drama class. In one space were costumes and props, another area designated “The Thespian Corner.” I smiled as I recognized the high school point system on the wall. Students lounged casually around loose desks—flip flops seemed to be mandatory. A man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts greeted me enthusiastically with a kiss on the cheek, the Hawaiian custom. He introduced himself as Chris Kepler, the drama teacher, and encouraged me to take a seat and have some popcorn and cookies, leftovers from last night’s drama club social.
After a brief introduction to his first period drama class, we head to the cafetorium, an area Chris claimed as a performance space when he started teaching here seven years ago. It is a smaller stage with minimal sound and lighting equipment. They have been assigned a brush up rehearsal for their current show, Salem’s Daughter. The show is a classroom project and all rehearsals, except for three techs, have been held during class time. Every member of the class is involved. As bubbly and talkative as they all were on the way to the cafetorium, I am impressed at how quickly they get down to business. Students not on stage find other ways to help or sit quietly, respectfully watching their classmates and listening attentively to Mr. Kepler’s direction. The radio blaring in the back as the cafeteria workers prepare lunch is a surprising advantage—not one student has any trouble projecting.
Rosie Kulhavy-Sutherland, a junior, sat next to me and explained quietly that Chris earns his students’ respect by giving them responsibility and trust, rare gifts for teenagers. They want to make him proud. He teaches them that they can do anything in life, because they’ve already faced it on stage. Rosie shared her dream of becoming a doctor. She knows theatre will help her in this profession because she now has experience dealing with different kinds of people, public speaking, and leadership.
Another student, Rachel Simmons, the drama club president, eagerly shared her love of theatre. Formerly part of an all girls home school group, she became “obsessed” when she saw a friend’s play at King K. Something clicked and she immediately knew she had to be part of that world. After six long months of begging, bargaining, and pleading, her parents finally gave in, and were glad that they did. Rachel’s infectious enthusiasm and sunny attitude are a resounding affirmation that theatre education matters.
The bell rang to signal second period advisory, a type of study hall. Many of the same students are in this class. A few sat at a small keyboard, playing and singing an Adele song, a few more worked on organizing the costume area. Their classroom serves as the main storage, but they also have a storage space in the parking lot for larger items. Chris had a brief break to talk, and after a few interruptions about various assignments, he laughingly asked that they hold their questions for ten minutes. I learned that Chris is the only drama teacher at King K, and without a consistent base of parent volunteers, he relies heavily on his students. They build all of the sets themselves, no student is only an actor or only a techie. During production class, he frequently loads the ten students into the back of his truck, heads to the local hardware store (after waivers have been signed, of course), and teaches them which paint, lumber, and tools they’ll need for their next project.
After school ends, the day is far from over. We arranged my visit so that I could see that night’s performance of Salem’s Daughter. Before every performance, students work together to turn the space into a proper venue, and after every performance, they have to turn it back into a cafeteria. Chris invites school clubs and community groups to set up tables at the back of the performance space—an unusual, yet effective, practice. Audience members are encouraged to visit the tables during intermission, fostering new relationships and connections. It was obvious that much time, care, and effort were put into the rehearsal process. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. A local publication, Maui Scene, wrote a glowing review of the production, commenting on the cast’s convincing performances and stating, “the suspenseful plot kept the audience engaged” and “Salem’s Daughter is a refreshing alternative to the usual high school fare.”
King K High School drama is in a bit of a transition period, proving that there is always something new to learn in the theatre world. In 2011, twenty two of Kepler’s core thirty students graduated, fifteen of them boys. After spending the last few years searching for heavy male shows, like The Outsiders, he is now perusing the other end of the spectrum to find new pieces like Salem’s Daughter, with nine female roles.
Another special element of this theatre program is that, each year, Chris makes sure that one production covers an important social issue. Past productions have covered heavy topics like drug abuse, eating disorders, and domestic violence. Salem's Daughter brings bullying front and center through the clever use of the Salem witch trials. He brings in outside groups like Rachel’s Challenge to encourage people to spread kindness.
On top of running four productions a year, he also organizes multiple fundraisers, social events for the club, and still manages to find the time to perform in the community (he’s currently playing the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz). He organizes informal outings on evenings or weekends so that students have the opportunity to see performances at other local schools and community theatres. These connections give them the ability to borrow necessary props and furniture to which they wouldn’t otherwise have access. Did I mention he’s also married with three young daughters? Add to the fact that drama club advisor is an unpaid volunteer position, and I believe we have the makings of a modern day superhero.
Kepler’s students are proudly known as Dramaaticans, an idea developed by students in 2010. The legend originates on the planet Dramaatica, whose original inhabitants (including Shakespeare) traveled to Earth to share theatre. As direct descendants of these immigrants, it is their role and duty to continue their efforts here on earth. This idea seems to have created an unshakeable bond among today's Dramaaticans. They are supportive, kind, and helpful. The common theme discovered through talking to these students is that they accept one and all, regardless of their differences. They even have their own custom Dramaatican T-shirt, designed by Levi Young and the afore mentioned Rosie. I was lucky enough to be given one of these shirts and it is a gift and a concept that I will always treasure.
King Kekaulike High School is a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of money to have a life-changing theatre program. We hear it over and over again (just check out the blog entry from ITO Jackie Kranenburg), giving students responsibility, trust, and a little creative freedom can make amazing things happen.