Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day Two-Hundred Twenty-Seven: Pugh and Houston

Yes, my blog plays "Song of the Year" every time you open it now. Don't worry, it'll be gone in a week. :-)

I've mentioned before that Wellington High School was not huge on the arts. In my freshman and sophomore years, however, there was one art that was very easily the biggest joke of them all. While our choir enjoyed an admirable amount of success and our band had a fairly strong reputation, our drama department was a terribly unfunny joke. There were no productions outside of the actual drama classes, and all the drama classes (along with the debate and forensics--that's basically speech and drama competition, minus the one-acts--which were run by the same teacher) were total pud classes. Three-quarters of the kids in those classes took them because they knew the teacher would let them do whatever they wanted most of the time.

Ah, Mr. Pugh.

Mr. Pugh was an oddball in every sense of the word. He was a small man, probably no more than five-seven, and bald with powerful thick-rimmed glasses. He usually wore tight, bright purple pants to class. When he tried to lay down the law in class--which was rarely--the upperclassmen would roll their eyes, "Oh, Pugh, come on!" and he'd usually drop it right then and there. I'm trying to remember if he ever actually directed the plays he directed. Searching my memory banks for an instance of direction he may have given me. Once, to see if he cared/was paying attention, I put a chair on my head--not, like, a school cafeteria chair, a piece of furniture--and chased the other characters off the stage shouting "I AM CHAIR-HEAD!" He didn't comment after the rehearsal. And that's a true story.

Mr. Pugh once put me in charge of finding a play script for us to produce. I dug through his big brown filing cabinet stuffed with partial and complete plays--few of them very good--and read. (Guess it was preparing me for my first taste of the Committee of Doom!) I'd report back to him with "This wasn't very good," or "This wasn't too bad," or "This was actually kind of funny." When I gave him the "kind of funny" script, he asked me, "Doesn't this one have boys dressing up as girls? Because that's pretty funny." Turns out, that had been his criteria for finding a winning play. If I had known that, I could have saved a ton of time. But then, I don't know what I would have done with the rest of those afternoons anyway. ;-)

Had Mr. Pugh been the final say in all things theatrical during my high school years, it's highly unlikely I'd have veered away from my previous convictions of "I'll never do theatre professionally." Fortunately, God saw fit to put another man in my life in the form of our new choir director, Mr. Houston.

If I ever compile an "I owe it to..." list of people who directly led to my life in theatre, Mr. Houston will be the second name on that list (after sweet Connie of my WCT days). Houston treated me like I had serious talent. "Stick with me, Ledesma," he said once after school, "and I'll make you a star." He had the cred to say that sort of thing, too. He came to education from a background in professional musical theatre, playing some roles I can probably only dream of playing. Houston's love of musical theatre spilled into virtually every choir concert we did, and for several years I became stuck on musicals.

Now, back in those days I was a pretty good singer. We had better singers at WHS, and we had at least one better actor, but I was the best singer-actor combination in the small school, and Houston pushed me to get better. I sort of regret that I had to abandon music to focus on theatre in college, but I really regret that Houston left WHS after only two years. I'd never been pushed to improve like that before, and really I haven't been pushed like that since. I am curious as to what I may have become.

Anyway, Houston started staging small-scale musicals through the choir department, completely independent of Mr. Pugh's drama classes. The first year we mounted Nunsense, which I obviously was not in, but he did let me be the spotlight operator. He brought in his brother, a real-life professional techie, to handle the production side of the show, and I learned a lot by following him around and watching. That show was probably my first taste of "real" theatre, at least as close as I'd come for another year or so.

The next year, our musical was You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I played Charlie Brown. The chance to work with a director who knew how to direct was a novel thing and probably gave me a leg up on the next couple of years of my development. I remember opening night for the show for two reasons: first, there was a severe hailstorm moments before curtain and the power went out. When it came back, all our light cues had been erased, so the crew was scrambling to make it work as we went along. Second, I had a lot of friends in the audience that first night. As I came out for the final bow, the Little Theater (aptly named "Little," inaccurately christened a "Theater") erupted with cheers. One of those few mountaintop experiences that this field doesn't really offer you that often.

I know I promised an amusing story about a camel, but sadly I don't think we'll get to it tonight.

Mr. Houston's dismissal from WHS was messy. Houston had taken an oft-overlooked department and, in two years, made it a hub of excitement and achievement. We had straight I's at competition, we were staging not only musicals, but extravagant entertainments in the spring for our concert choir finales. He'd brought showmanship, professionalism, and a commitment to excellence to the arts in Wellington.

And then came the downsizing.

The school district cut a music director position or two and shuffled everybody around to fill the holes. That meant the high school choir director would now also be required to teach elementary school music. Not only did Houston not want to teach elementary school, he really wasn't equipped for it. Meanwhile, Mr. Pugh retired. Houston suggested he take the high school choir AND drama departments, thus allowing the school district to hire one part-time elementary music teacher rather than a full-time high school drama teacher. He was two classes away from having his drama teaching certification, and he was going to complete those credits over the summer.

No, said the superintendent, you'll teach the kids instead, because that was our idea. Then our assistant principal got involved, and that man was a real bully. And, as is always the case when you give a bully some power, the man was tripping. Heavily. So Houston tendered his resignation.

I won't recount everything that happened next here. My dad wrote a letter to the editor about what a shame it would be to lose such a fine, experienced teacher. The ass. principle found out and called the paper and threatened them not to print that letter. And more phone calls were made. People were threatened. I got called into the office numerous times. Students got angry. Parents got angry. The rest is details, but when the dust settled, scare tactics won out, and Houston moved on to Colorado.

I've got back in touch with Houston a couple years ago. It's good emailing with him from time to time. I've told him how much I owe him, how much I've learned from him, and how much he inspired me. Which is apparently the sort of thing teachers love hearing seven or so years later from former students.

I'm always going to wonder what might have been, though, had he been able to stay. Especially if he had ever got a chance to work with the magic man who took the reins of the drama department following Pugh's departure...