This Denver drama teacher calls his students celebrities

When COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, drama teacher Michael Berquist had just finished a production of “Footloose” with his students at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy Academy, a K-12 magnetic school in Denver. But he couldn’t relax and wait for the pandemic to subside.

“I had such a talented group of juniors and seniors that shutting down was not an option,” he said. “We had to continue. “

So Berquist moved forward into the world of virtual theater, masked actors, and quarantine workarounds. For his efforts, he was one of 109 Colorado teachers recognized earlier this fall as “Theater Educator of the Year” by Colorado State Thespians, a state advocacy group that promotes education. theater.

Michel berquist
Courtesy of Jennifer Buhl / Happy Hour Headshot

“Living in the hearts and lives of their students in extraordinary ways,” said Tami LoSasso, chapter director of the comedians group.

Berquist explained to Chalkbeat how his first pandemic production helped connect with families, what his students think of a 1950s play about a children’s sociopath, and why he doesn’t follow gender norms when casting .

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Was there a time when you decided to become a teacher?

My mom was a wonderful elementary school teacher and coach for 33 years, so growing up I thought that was her thing and that I would do something different. However, it was kismet when my mentor Christy Izmirian asked me to direct her plays at Carmody Middle School in Lakewood, where she taught. I had recently graduated in theater and communications and finished my summer acting jobs in Los Angeles. I fell in love with those seventh and eighth graders who were working on “Narnia” and “Peter Pan”, and two years later I pursued my Masters in Curriculum and Teaching so that I could make that dream come true. full time.

How did you approach teaching theater and creating productions during the pandemic?

When the world stopped on March 13, 2020, we were fortunate enough to complete our production of “Footloose”. It was necessary to continue. We chose “She Kills Monsters” as our very first fall virtual play, and we got together on Google Meet daily with students designing backgrounds. I drove to all the student houses to deliver props and costumes. It was a wonderful way to bond with families and it strengthened our program and our community.

A high school girl is lying on her back on a dark stage during a performance of

A Kunsmiller student performs during a production of “Frankenstein”.
Courtesy of Clay Jessen

This year, in masks, we chose “Frankenstein”. My wonderful co-principal, William Starn, and I did daily practice sessions with the students before school so they could build up their stamina to unleash the 19th century dialogue and dance for two hours every night all night long. by being masked. This time around was also a wonderful opportunity to recruit liners for a pandemic emergency, and these kids learned to cover multiple roles and grow even stronger.

With many students speaking Spanish at Kunsmiller, how do you approach theater so that everyone can participate?

Kunsmiller students speak many different languages ​​including Spanish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian, so it’s a fun challenge to integrate different languages. This year my college students wrote and translated Greek myths from English to Spanish and presented a bilingual showcase. While it can be difficult to keep up in multiple languages ​​at times, it has been cool for emerging language students to be the leaders in theater roles, even when they may have a hard time learning English in the theater. other classes. My Spanish speaking students translate for me, and this has helped them demonstrate their understanding of the content, both orally and in writing.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My high school drama teacher, Kella Manfredi, taught Maxwell Anderson’s “Bad Seed” script, and I continued this tradition with my ninth grade students. It’s the classic 1956 play about an 8-year-old sociopath, and my students love it. The play initiated discussions about the education of children in different cultures and how ancient works can be told in a modern way. My students are dying for this to be a selection on stage, but I’m stopping for now because the kids come to my class because they hear how fun this script is.

Tell us about a momentous moment – good or bad – when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Many Kunsmiller students are under the umbrella of special education and learning English. Over the past three years it has been amazing to watch these students rise to the challenge through their hard work and passion. The best feeling there is when the parents of these students say, “I didn’t know my child could do this” or when the students themselves say, “I didn’t know I could do this. Comments like these continue to push William and I to think of bigger, more diverse and more stimulating pieces for our students, because when they think about it, they can really accomplish anything and be as talented as seasoned professionals.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received on teaching theater?

The best advice I received was to always have high expectations and study reading skills closely. These in-depth reading skills that I acquired as an English student teacher allowed me to break down the text with my students so that they could understand and interpret the text authentically. Due to the high expectations I have learned from my mentor teachers, I always tell my students that I am their biggest fan and that this belief drives us to create the most professional shows possible. To me, my students are Broadway / West End A-list artists and technicians. They are my celebrities. I want the world to see them shine. It is our role as theater teachers to demand this confidence and sparkle from our students.

What is happening in the community that affects what is happening in your classroom?

Kunsmiller has a large and diverse LGBTQ + population. The variety of gender expressions among our students allows our theater program to play with gender in our productions. We always say at auditions that ALL roles are open to everyone. It allowed for some really cool alternate castings in each of my shows. We’ve had lovers in “Almost Maine”, preachers in “Footloose”, a cheerleader in “She Kills Monsters”, and we’re heading for a mixed “Chicago”. This strategy teaches players entering the industry to demand consideration for any role they wish to play, regardless of social mores.

What do you read for fun?

Right now I’m reading “Dune” before watching the film adaptation. It’s going to take until the second half of the year to complete it, but I think we could all use a hero’s journey right now. I also recently had fun reading the original “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelly. It was fun talking with the cast and crew of the adaptation and giving them details from the novel to complement their characters.

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