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‘They are my celebrities:’ How this Denver theater teacher sees his students

A high school girl grasps a boy’s hand on a dark stage during a production of “Frankenstein.”
Students at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy worked with theater teacher Michael Berquist to put on stage production of Frankenstein this fall.
Courtesy of Clay Jessen

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

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

So Berquist forged ahead into the world of virtual theater, masked actors, and quarantine workarounds. For his efforts, he was among 109 Colorado teachers recognized earlier this fall as a “Theater Educator of the Year” by Colorado State Thespians, a statewide advocacy group promoting theater education.

Michael Berquist
Courtesy of Jennifer Buhl / Happy Hour Headshot

“With 2020 being what it was, we thought it only appropriate to honor the many theater educators who worked tirelessly to keep art alive in the hearts and lives of their students via extraordinary means,” said Tami LoSasso, chapter director of the thespians group.

Berquist talked to Chalkbeat about how his first pandemic production helped connect with families, what his students think about a 1950s-era play about a child sociopath, and why he doesn’t stick to gender norms in casting.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

My mom was a wonderful elementary teacher and instructional 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 with my theater and communication degree and finished my summer acting jobs in Los Angeles. I fell in love with those seventh- and eighth-graders working on “Narnia” and “Peter Pan,” and two years later, I pursued my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction so that I could follow this dream full time.

How have you approached teaching theater and putting on productions during the pandemic?

When the world stopped on March 13, 2020, we were fortunate to have just wrapped our production of “Footloose.” We had to keep going. We chose “She Kills Monsters” as our first-ever fall virtual play, and we met daily on Google Meets with students designing backgrounds. I drove to all the students’ houses to deliver props and costumes. It was a wonderful way to connect with families and has strengthened our program and community.

A high school student lays on her back on a darkened stage during a performance of “Frankenstein.”
A Kunsmiller student performs during a production of “Frankenstein.”
Courtesy of Clay Jessen

This year, in masks, we chose “Frankenstein.” My wonderful co-director, William Starn, and I did daily workouts with students before school so that they could build stamina for rattling off 19th-century dialogue and dancing for two hours every night while masked. This time was also a wonderful opportunity to cast understudies in case of a pandemic emergency, and these kids learned how to cover multiple roles and become even stronger.

With many students who speak Spanish at Kunsmiller, how do you approach theater so that everybody can participate?

Students at Kunsmiller speak many different languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian, so it is a fun challenge to incorporate different languages. This year, my middle schoolers wrote and translated Greek myths from English to Spanish and are performing a dual-language showcase. While it is sometimes hard to follow in multiple languages, this has been cool for emergent language students to be leads in theater roles, even when they may struggle learning in English in other classes. I have my Spanish-speaking students translate for me, and it has helped them demonstrate understanding of the content, both in speaking and writing.

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

My high school theater teacher, Kella Manfredi, taught the script “Bad Seed’ by Maxwell Anderson, and I have continued that tradition with my ninth graders. This is the classic 1956 play about an 8-year-old sociopath, and my students absolutely love it. The play has started discussions about the rearing of children in different cultures and how old works can be retold in modern ways. My students are dying for it to be a mainstage selection, but I’m holding off for now because kids come to my class because they hear how much fun that script is.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Many of the students at Kunsmiller are under the special education and English language learner umbrella. In the past three years, it has been amazing to see those students rise to the challenge through hard work and passion. The best feeling ever is when parents of those students say, “I didn’t know my kid could do that,” or when students themselves say, “I didn’t know I could do that.” Comments like these continue to push William and me to think of bigger, more diverse, more challenging pieces for our students because when they put their minds to it, they really can achieve anything and be as talented as seasoned professionals.

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

The best advice I received was to always have high expectations and to study close reading skills. Those close reading skills I learned as an English student teacher have allowed me to break down text with my students so that they can understand and authentically perform text. Because of the high expectations, I learned from my mentor teachers, I always tell my students that I am their biggest fan and that belief drives us to create the most professional shows we can. To me, my students are Broadway/West End A-list performers and technicians. They are my celebrities. I want the world to see them shine. It is our role as theater teachers to demand that confidence and shine of our students.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on 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 all people. This has allowed for really cool alternative castings in each of my shows. We’ve had female lovers in “Almost Maine,” female preachers in “Footloose,” a male cheerleader in “She Kills Monsters,” and we are headed for a mixed-gender “Chicago.” This strategy teaches actors entering the industry to demand consideration for any role they want to play, regardless of social mores.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

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

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