We Remember Ellen

On January 4, 2015, our beloved high school English teacher and theater director Ellen Shultz passed away. You can read her obituary here. Janna and I got the news while in the car on the way home from the winter Buckwalter reunion. We started thinking and talking about her influence on us and our memories of her, which led us to writing about it here…

Janna here. Did you have much experience with Ellen, youngest sisters? I blame her for the fact that I never have free time. Remember before I started theater? I used to get so much sleep, travel to exotic places that exist in real life. No longer.

Drama Club photo from my senior year yearbook.
Drama Club photo from my senior year yearbook. Rachel and I got the two shoulder seats. This may look small, but number-wise it is only about 8 people less than my entire graduating class.

I was in all of the shows that Ellen cast me in during high school and some of my favorite high school memories are rehearsals and shows. She gave me free individual diction lessons after school, after I grew tired of being told by classmates that they couldn’t understand me when I read out loud in class.  I still remember some of her directions on what makes good improv during Drama Club events.  But when I graduated from high school, I distinctly remember thinking that I was done with theater. I loved being involved with the shows, but I wasn’t a great actor in high school and really loved watching theater. I would focus my creative energy on music and enjoy theater from the audience. 

Ha! Ellen had other plans.

After I moved back home and she had cofounded the local community theater, she asked me to help with a summer youth performance of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I did what she kindly called assistant directing, though I know now that I hardly did anything at all. The following summer she asked if I would direct a show using some of the same kids had done “Charlie Brown,” in the hopes of keeping them involved in summer theater.  She would direct an show with adults. It was winter and I was bored, so I agreed. I knew so little then. I directed “Looking Glass Land” with a group of local junior and high school students and that was it. I had no idea what I was doing with directing and had very little experience with theater over all, but I loved it and set out to learn what I could. “Don’t tell anyone :),” I told her in an email at the end of the summer, ‘but I ended up having a grand time this summer, and want to see if it’s something I can make sustainable…” I shadowed a local theater professor through two of his shows to see what I could learn about directing, assistant directed MacBeth with a visiting director, directed another summer show with the kids, and worked at the summer theater camp at the local university. Ellen then recommended me for a part-time gig directing and advising the Drama Club at the local state college, where I’ve now been for 5 years. That job showed me how much I enjoy working with college students and is one of the main reasons I chose to go to grad school. Theater has affected every aspect of my life, thanks to her.

After getting me in, she helped keep me sane. She took so many emails from me those early years, when I was first trying to figure what the bleep I was doing. In those emails, titled things like “stream of consciousness processing,” I vented about actors not showing up and cast drama. Her messages through the years included lines like, “Spectacular job!” and “Obviously I think you are wonderful” and “If I can do anything for you, let me know” and “Take a breath, it will all work out.” She helped find props and costumes and refused any public thanks for it.  She made sure that I was able to borrow the community theater’s lights every year for the dinner theater we do every spring. She apologized for not making more of my shows and talked about the time she was spending with her kids and grandkids, whom she loved so very much.

I was pretty sure that she got me involved in theater with the hopes that I would help take over the community theater when the time came to pass her torch.  A couple years ago, I wrote her an email thanking her for her kindness and support, for getting me back into theater, and apologizing for not having much energy for the community theater work. At that point I was directing a couple shows a year already on top of working full-time and found that to be (more than) enough. I was worried about disappointing her and wanted her to know that I was trying, in my own way, to make my shows be good for the community. She responded that I did not disappoint her in any way and that she was “so proud” of me. That was a gift.

When her death shocked all of us a few weeks ago, I kept wishing that I had one more chance to let her know how much I appreciated her support and thank her for getting me back into this crazy world that has been my delight. Can you ever say those things enough? I wish I had said them more. I know well that I am just one of many people–family members, friends, and other former students–whose life she influenced for good. I heard some great stories at her memorial service–of something she said that made a significant difference in the life of a friend and classmate, of gifts of grace and patience and telescopes given throughout the years, of her laughter and insistence on good grammar. She loved and was loved by many. At the service, John Gill led a round of applause for her that turned into a standing ovation.

The two of us in our Camelot costumes. 1993?
Rachel and I in our Camelot costumes. 1993?

Rachel here. I never got to the point where I could call her Ellen! Yeah, it took me years. She was always Mrs. Shultz to me, because I interacted with her when I was a high school student. I will forever be grateful to her for gently nudging me to try out for the role of Helen in the Miracle Worker. I remember the tryouts, and when she asked me what role I wanted, I said, oh, probably one of the blind girls. She looked at me with a little twinkle in her eye and said, what about Helen? I was so surprised and amazed that she was obviously thinking of me for that role. Oh, I said, sure! Yes! Helen! And I got it. Of course, it helped that I was an unusually small person so I could play the role of a child easily. Still, it was inspiring to have someone encourage me and believe in me like she did. I had never thought of myself as a lead actress in a show. Following that, she cast me as Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, and the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Plus I got to be a part of many other shows, including Camelot and Big River and Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. The role of Helen in high school led to me having the same role again in a college production of The Miracle Worker, another great experience, all thanks to Mrs. Shultz.

She had a nice easygoing director style. She was not one to bark orders at everyone. She was gentle, she was sometimes indirect, she had a great smile and such a wonderful relaxing way about her. Many of us remember the relaxation exercises she would lead us through before a show. By the end of those exercises I felt like I could maybe sink through the floor, I was that relaxed. I still remember that feeling and her soft, gentle voice.

Now that I have a sister whose life is taken over by theater on a regular basis, I think back to what she must have sacrificed with her own family in order to do all the directing she did. So many evenings spent at school. She never seemed stressed out about it, or if she was, I never knew. I have so many happy memories of high school theater, of the friends I made there and the many many hours roaming the halls of AACS after hours. Honestly, theater was one of the best parts of high school for me–so much that my friend Karen and I gave a speech about it at graduation (as co-salutatorians). We wanted to make sure that theater as an “extracurricular” continued to receive the necessary support to keep it going for future students.

When I came back to Alfred to visit as a grown up, I saw her a few times here and there at my parents’ church. She was happy to meet Miriam and once commented, chuckling, that she could see that Miriam was a bit of a drama queen and liked to perform. Hmm, she said, I wonder where she got that from?

Searching through a box of old photos and random things I saved, I came across the 1990 Alcen. That class was particularly gifted when it came to theater. They wrote a lovely tribute to Mrs. Shultz on the last page, which says it all:

Mrs. Shultz

I am hopeful that my daughters will have teachers in their lives like Mrs. Shultz. Teachers who love what they do and who inspire kids to do great things they never thought of doing. Thank  you, Mrs. Shultz. Brava, Ellen. Oh, brava. You were magnificent.

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