By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
As we begin to emerge from a year and a half of pandemic uncertainty, it’s an exciting time for theatre teachers around the Valley.
For recent College of Fine Arts and Production (COFAP) Theatre Education graduates Katie Norton, Isabel Potter and Daniel Hernandez, the 2021-22 school year also brings their first post-graduation opportunity to take what they learned from their professors and time at Grand Canyon University and pour back into local school theatre programs.
Within months of graduating, the three have landed teaching jobs and have big plans to make waves in the theatre community for middle school and high school students.
When Norton was in high school, she had an idea of what she wanted to study in college but didn't know where -- that is, until she saw first hand the atmosphere and community of GCU’s campus.
“I was like, ‘The community here is amazing. I love it,’” she said. “Yes, as a freshman it’s a little overwhelming, but the community made me feel very welcomed.”
Norton tried several areas of theatre during her time in COFAP. She worked as assistant stage manager for “Major Barbara” in 2018 and “Who Will Carry the Word” in 2019 and was an usher for “A Year with Frog and Toad” in 2019 and “The Tempest” in 2020.
But she also gained valuable knowledge in her degree program that would help her in the K-12 job market.
“They had us do mock teaching and same with integrated arts,” she said. “Doing that in class helped with the interview process because they were like, ‘OK, I want you to do a mock lesson.’ I had never heard of that outside of class, so at least I was able to just go, ‘OK, here’s how this might look like for a drama class.’”
After graduating in April, Norton accepted a position at Mountainside Middle School in Scottsdale, teaching Drama and Media Production.
“I’m really looking forward to building a program, getting the students really involved and making an impact that is not just surface based,” she said. “I want to have that with my students where they feel like my classroom is a home for them outside of their home. I’m looking forward to being able to build that with them.”
As a senior in high school, Potter was introduced to what would become her passion – teaching theatre.
“I was TA'ing (teacher assisting) for one of my drama teachers, and I realized that I really liked being involved with teaching,” she said. “I kind of switched my passion of wanting to be onstage to helping the kids be onstage and pursue their passion and love.”
That passion led her to GCU, where she again was moved by the educators she encountered.
“They provided a lot of creative opportunities that I was kind of inspired by,” she said. “Allowing us to take a play and try to create a whole set design, a whole production – all of these wonderful real-world situations that they put us in, I want to incorporate within my classroom.”
For Potter, having a degree as specific as Theatre Education required her to spend a little extra time finding the perfect fit. As a member of the state board for Arizona Thespians, she latched onto her dream job when she caught wind of an opening for a theatre teacher at Bradshaw Mountain High School in Prescott Valley.
“High school was definitely my targeted audience,” she said. “I definitely respond better with them.”
With the knowledge she gained in her undergraduate program, the December 2020 graduate will teach three classes: Introduction to Theatre and Film, and two Stage Craft I courses.
Potter credits the increased interest in theatre at her school to the limitations caused by the pandemic.
“A lot of the students now want to participate and be a part of these things, and our school has gotten really popular lately,” she said. “The demand for stage craft went up, for sure.”
With any new role there can be moments fear or uncertainty, but Potter has developed a thought process that has helped her stay focused.
“Just remember why you started,” she said. “Remember the passion that you have and the drive that you have because teaching gets hard and there are a lot of challenges that come with it that can make you want to quit. It can make you challenge why you’re doing this.
“If you remember the why, then you’ll get through it.”
Hernandez loves both theatre and education but struggled to find a program with both. When he saw that GCU offered a degree in Theatre Education, it was a no-brainer.
“Going to GCU and having the ability to just have everything all together was both convenient and it was just nice because it was close to me as well,” he said.
While he didn’t have enough free time to participate in COFAP productions while he was a student, he made it a priority to see as many shows as he could. Now, the spring 2021 graduate is teaching Beginning Acting, Stagecraft and an advanced production class at Moon Valley High School in Phoenix.
Hernandez credits the “modernized” COFAP teaching methods for preparing him.
“I have all the new stuff," he said, "so I don’t feel as overwhelmed."
Specifically, Hernandez said he benefited most from the integration of technology into performance marketing and displaying media.
Like Potter, Hernandez hasn't let the challenge of starting his career detract from his purpose. It is a message that he has made clear to his students. Hernandez hopes to implement the student-focused emphasis that he experienced within his classes at GCU.
“I told my students this: My goal and the reason why I went into teaching theatre is to inspire the next generation to go big, to do big things and to not be scared of trying new things.
“I told them that it is scary in the beginning and it’s OK because they’re going to have help from myself, they’re going to have help from the peers in the classroom. There are people here to help and guide them to where they want to go.”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].