Sparking a Passion for Drama

At Friends' Central School

On an early Monday morning in March, the Friends’ Central drama room is chilly. Upper School drama teacher Terry Guerin asks her students to gather in a circle and warm up. It’s time to play an ice-breaking improv game, and Terry laughs as she casts herself in the lead role. Everyone laughs along with her, and the fun – and work – begins.

They begin counting off one by one and then slapping their legs in time. Guerin starts the chanting and elimination game that requires students to keep track of their own number and those of others. At first, there’s a little nervousness while students get comfortable with the rules, then a sharp focus on keeping the game moving, and finally, a lot of laughter.

Like many drama games and exercises, it takes concentration and collaboration. “And that,” says Guerin, “is the essence of ensemble theatre. True collaboration happens in the theatre – it’s great communal art. Everyone is committed to the storytelling. We talk about that right out of the gate – it’s about everyone being essential. If everyone doesn’t become one, it doesn’t work.”

Guerin has been bringing ensemble theatre of all stripes and types to Friends’ Central for 25 years. Productions have ranged from large popular musicals like West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, and Urinetown, to lesser known works like Playing for Time and Oedipus Rex. Guerin also began the drama showcase program at FCS, bringing to life works such as Fires in the Mirror and, most recently this winter, “8” The Play, about marriage equality. Her quest for new material and her remarkable vision are the foundation of a cutting edge dramatic arts community at Friends’ Central – a community that has launched the careers of numerous alumni/ae, many of whom credit her passion for drama and theatre with inspiring their professional lives.

In the Beginning

Evidence of dramatic productions at Friends’ Central has been traced all the way back to the late 1800s. Student productions and faculty plays have long been a school tradition and have always involved many students, as well as brave faculty members, in acting, making scenery, handling properties, and lighting. Lower School teachers have been preparing plays in the classroom since the early 1900s. This practice is still in place today, as all students in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades perform classroom plays at the end of each year. Nursery, Pre-K, and K, too, have opportunities with dramatic expression, from acting out nursery rhymes to doing skits and plays for their parents. Lower School Assistant Principal, Ginger Fifer, believes that the benefits of students producing and acting in plays each year are endless and revolve around the teachers’ steadfast commitment to deepening students’ self-esteem. Fifer explains, “The Lower School faculty believes in the value of drama at Friends’ Central, and our teachers are committed to providing our children with opportunities in this form of creative expression. In our dramatic endeavors, the bottom line is about the Quaker testimony of community, both the building and deepening of it with our children. For all of us working with Lower School children, the sense of accomplishment that comes from working as a team on a play is profound every time, and children all grow in self-confidence, without exception.” These end-of-year plays integrate learning in reading, writing, and history better than any other project possible, particularly since they grow out of the Lower School’s commitment to thematic learning.

Student Play 1923-1924

Berenice Woerner and Robert Cadigan are credited with jumpstarting the FCS drama program at FCS, but around 1915, one teacher, Olive Day, began to really push the boundaries of drama at Friends’ Central, a tradition that was passed down to her successors in the drama department. Friends’ Central 1845-1984, a history of FCS written by Clayton Farraday, says that “Olive Day was 50 years ahead of her time in producing classroom plays, and in her emphasis on student participation.” Day’s talent for producing drama productions, particularly ones that were outside the box and ahead of their time, sparked a passion for acting among her students, and due to growing interest among students, drama was added to the curriculum in 1930.

Theater in the Round (circa 1955)

Under the leadership of Richard Burgess, Ted Shakespeare, Joe Servello, Dave Schaeffer, and Lenny Haas ’76, drama teachers at FCS from the 1960s through the 1980s, the drama program really started to take off, and drama productions became less traditional and much more experimental, something that colleges are known for more so than high schools. Due to this unconventionality, more students were confident enough to choose drama as a course of study in college, and so the School was searching for ways to feed students’ passion for theatre and expand the drama program at Friends’ Central School. One of the answers to this growing need to showcase the dramatic talents of FCS students, feed their passion for acting, and get Friends’ Central’s drama program on the map was Terry Guerin.

In May 1975, a remarkable outdoor production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello was performed. The stage was constructed at the foot of the stairs in the back of the Main Building, with the entire Main Building serving as the backdrop to the production. Richard Fetter ’64 contributed his time and skill to the lighting of the two evening performances.

Guerin Comes to FCS

Terry Guerin came to Friends’ Central in 1988, starting in both the Middle and Upper Schools as a drama teacher (she is now solely in the Upper School). Guerin attended a large public high school in Chicago, beginning theatre herself at Quincy College, where she earned a BFA in theatre with a concentration in direction and acting. She went on to earn an MA from Villanova and a certificate from the Globe Shakespeare Education Center (London) in Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance. Before arriving at Friends’ Central, Guerin acted in Philadelphia, taught drama at The Baldwin School, and taught acting and musical theatre at Villanova University, where she also directed shows. She met her husband (now a software architect) in the Philadelphia theatre world, and her children, Joey ’05 and Maggie ’04, are both Friends’ Central graduates.

Jim Davis, formerly Friends’ Central’s music teacher, choral director, and chair of the Arts Department, worked with Terry from the beginning of her tenure. “She’s so much more interested in theatre as an art – as transformative not merely as entertainment. She’s a teacher before an entertainer. Her goal is an ensemble cast that can convey the truth of a story,” Davis says.

He continues, “She really believes in creating a commitment on the part of the cast … she has no use for who’s the star or who’s the lead.”

In fact, Terry impresses upon cast members that no part in a show is too small. During that moment on stage, an actor holds the story (and the audience) in his or her hands – and with every actor passionately committed and engaged, a wonderful thing happens.

Benj Pasek ’03, now an award-winning and Tony-nominated Broadway composer, laughs remembering a moment when he lost sight of that. He was a sophomore at Friends’ Central acting in the ’70s play, Hot_l Baltimore. On stage for his two minutes delivering a pizza, he saw his chance to “mug the audience” for a laugh (‘breaking through’ what is called the fourth wall between the audience and stage). He got one. And he was elated! He exited the stage and found Terry waiting backstage, not so elated.

“She chewed me out for getting out of character,” Pasek said. But the episode didn’t scare him off. “When you have someone who cares that much, it is inspiring – to work at a higher level. She inspired me to take the work seriously. I thought if she cares that much, I should, too.”

Her Own Path

It was on a trip with students to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland that Guerin organized in 2000 when she first met actors from the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which was right in her backyard – Philadelphia. That chance meeting kindled a collaboration with Pig Iron that continues today. Actors from Pig Iron, a theatre company known for its rigorous physical and experimental work, come to Friends’ Central to hold workshops with our students at least once a year, giving our students the opportunity to work with professional actors.

Jessica Rosenberg ’00 remembers that Scotland trip and the world it opened up to her and other students. While Jessica (now earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania) hated being on stage, Guerin strongly encouraged her to be a dramaturge – leading play research and development. “I’ve come to see that this is one of the basic connections between Terry’s artistic commitments and her commitment to a welcoming and inclusive community,” Jessica says. “She doesn’t just see places for everyone in theatre and in the FCS community – she creates them.”

Guerin says she is fortunate to be at Friends’ Central, where she has the freedom to explore new and unconventional work. FCS is committed to keeping drama productions free admission for audiences, allowing drama teachers to experiment and focus on the work itself, not on financing it, and each production is open to the public, allowing our students to showcase their talents in front of a wide range of audiences. The School puts on two main stage productions each year, alternating between a musical and Shakespeare production each winter, drama showcases like this year’s “8” The Play and in past years, The Laramie Project and Funny Shorts, as well as a 9th & 10th grade play, a leadership opportunity and culminating experience for students involved in drama classes, where seniors have the opportunity to direct a cast of 9th and 10th grade actors.

Back in the Classroom

The Monday morning drama students are warmed up now, having moved on to other exercises, like mirroring the movements of a partner, pondering whether an animal – maybe a hyena, gnat, lizard, cat, or bear – has traits like their characters. They finish up by rehearsing a scene for an upcoming drama showcase with their partners.

“Let your body inform the way you’re saying your lines … make it abstract, weird, different, just keep the connection with each other,” Guerin tells students.

“How do we get those perfect, spontaneous moments? Repeat the line until you feel your partner is coming back at you honestly. You want to be able to do that, and let’s just see what happens.”
Lucky for all of us in the audience, we get to see what happens, too!

FCS Drama Alumni/ae

Bess Phillips ’76
Once Upon a Mattress (1975)
Bess is now a professional singer, known for her work in opera, jazz, and Celtic funk, and is also a featured soloist for orchestras nationwide. She has sung in numerous solo recitals and many operatic roles, including Lucia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Tirésias in Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, and Woman with a Cake Box in Argento’s Postcards from Morocco.

Jon Kean ’85
Iolanthe (1985)

Jon Kean (pictured at left with Emily Freeman ’85) is now an actor, writer, and producer living in Santa Monica, CA. His most recent film, Swimming in Auschwitz, is a documentary which tells the story of six Jewish women and their experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Peter Wilson ’89
Daniel Barnz ’89
Middle School Melodrama (1983-1984)

Peter is currently principal timpanist with the Harrisburg Symphony and the Albany Symphony. He has also toured and recorded with the New York Philharmonic, as timpanist and percussionist, and performs regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Daniel is now a writer/director living in Los Angeles, CA.
Daniel wrote and directed the film Won’t Back Down, which appeared in theaters last fall (2012) and starred Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two determined mothers looking to transform their children’s Pittsburgh school in order to make a difference in the inner-city education of children

Ana Nogueira ’03
Pride and Prejudice (2002)

Ana is an actor whose star is on the rise. She is currently appearing as Nona Palmeira in the TV series Blue Bloods and has been cast in the new Michael J. Fox Show, which is set to debut on NBC this fall.

Benj Pasek ’03
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (2001)

Benj is a Tony-nominated songwriter, along with his writing partner Justin Paul, of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story, which opened last fall to rave reviews, was named one of the Top 10 Shows of 2012 by Time Magazine, and was recognized as the #1 Musical of 2012 by USA Today. Benj and Justin also composed the lyrics for the off-Broadway musical Dogfight, and their original songs were featured on Season 2 of NBC’s Smash.

Read more about FCS alumni/ae in the performing arts and their reflections on Terry Guerin and their time at FCS.

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