When COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, theater teacher Michael Berquist had just finished a production of “Footloose” with his students at the Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy Academy, a K-12 magnet 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 closing it down wasn’t an option,” he said. “We had to go on”
So Berquist pushed into the world of virtual theater, masked actors, and quarantine workarounds. For his efforts, he was among 109 Colorado teachers earlier this fall to be named Theater Educator of the Year by the Colorado State Thespians, a state advocacy group promoting theater education.
“As 2020 moves forward, we felt it appropriate to honor the many theater educators who have worked tirelessly to use exceptional means to keep the art alive in the hearts and lives of their students,” said Tami LoSasso, Chapter Director of Thespians -Group.
Berquist spoke to Chalkbeat about how his first pandemic production helped connect with families, what his students think of a play about a 1950s child sociopath, and why he doesn’t stick to gender norms when casting.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
My mother was a wonderful elementary school teacher and teaching trainer for 33 years. Growing up I thought this was her thing and that I was doing something different. However, it was a kusmet when my mentor Christy Izmirian asked me to direct her plays at Carmody Middle School in Lakewood, where she taught. I had recently graduated from theater and communications and finished my summer acting jobs in Los Angeles. I fell in love with the seventh and eighth graders working on Narnia and Peter Pan, and two years later I did my Masters in Curriculum and Classroom so that I could make that dream come true full time.
How did you approach theater classes and productions during the pandemic?
When the world stopped on March 13th, 2020, we were lucky to have just finished our production of “Footloose”. We had to go on. We chose She Kills Monsters as our very first virtual autumn game and met every day on Google Meets with students who were designing backgrounds. I went to all the student houses to deliver props and costumes. It was a wonderful way to connect with families and it strengthened our program and community.
This year we opted for “Frankenstein” in masks. My wonderful co-director William Starn and I trained with the students in front of school daily so they could build stamina to view 19th-century dialogues. That time was also a wonderful opportunity to staff emergencies in the event of a pandemic, and these kids were learning to take on multiple roles and become even stronger.
How do you approach the theater with many students who speak Spanish at Kunsmiller so that everyone can participate?
The 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 school students have written and translated Greek myths from English to Spanish and are doing a bilingual showcase. Although it’s hard to follow in multiple languages at times, it was cool for aspiring language students to do theater roles even if they have difficulty learning English in other classes. I have my Spanish-speaking students translate for me and it has helped them demonstrate understanding of the content both verbally and in writing.
Tell us about a preferred lesson. Where did the idea come from?
My high school drama teacher, Kella Manfredi, taught Maxwell Anderson’s script, Bad Seed, and I continued that tradition with my ninth graders. This is the 1956 classic play about an 8 year old sociopath, and my students absolutely love it. The play sparked discussions about raising children in different cultures and how old works can be retold in a modern way. My students long for it to be a mainstage selection, but I’m holding back for now because kids come into my class hearing how fun this 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 umbrella of special education and English learners. Over the past three years it has been amazing to see these students rise to the challenge with hard work and passion. The best feeling ever 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 keep pushing William and me to come up with bigger, more varied, and more challenging pieces for our students because if they remember, they can really achieve anything and be as talented as seasoned professionals.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about taking theater lessons?
The best advice I’ve received has been to always have high expectations and study accurate reading skills. These reading skills, which I learned as an English teacher, have enabled me to break down texts with my students so that they can understand texts and present them authentically. Because of the high expectations I have learned from my mentoring teachers, I always tell my students that I am their biggest fan and that our beliefs drive us to do the most professional shows we can. For me, my students are A-list artists and technicians on Broadway / West End. You are my celebrities. I want the world to see them shine. It is our job as a theater teacher to demand this trust and shine from our students.
What is happening in the community that affects what happens in your classroom?
Kunsmiller has a large and diverse LGBTQ + population. The diversity of gender expressions our students use enables our theater program to play with gender in our productions. We always say at auditions that ALL roles are open to everyone. This has resulted in really cool alternative auditions on every one of my shows. We’ve had female lovers on Almost Maine, female preachers on Footloose, a male cheerleader on She Kills Monsters, and we’re headed for a mixed-sex Chicago. This strategy teaches actors entering the industry to require consideration for any role they wish to play, regardless of social mores.
What do you read for pleasure?
Right now I’m reading “Dune” before I watch the film. It will take until the second semester to finish, but I think we could all use a hero’s trip now. I also enjoyed reading Mary Shelly’s original “Frankenstein” recently. It was fun talking to the cast and crew about the adaptation and giving them details from the novel to add to their characters.