Read Time: 12 minutes
Theater Teachers Change Students’ Lives with Art
It’s early evening at the end of a wintry school day, about two weeks away from the opening night of Hillcrest High School’s production of Prince Caspian. Theater teachers Giselle Gremmert and Joshua Long survey what seems to be barely contained chaos. While actors rehearse at center stage, technicians experiment upstage with scenery movement. Cast members awaiting cues sit in the auditorium in various costumes: badgers, dwarfs, centaurs, talking mice, even a few humans.
Gremmert and Long are feverishly jotting down needed changes. Long runs his hands repeatedly through his hair—a move interpreted by generations of students as a sign of stress—while Gremmert juggles directing her stage crew with answering questions from her three small sons, who are as comfortable in a high school theater as they are at home. Four-year-old Cooper asks about the tensile strength of a set piece.
Tensile strength is the maximum load a material can support without fracture while it is being stretched. Under the stretching influence of Long and Gremmert, hundreds of students have discovered their own strengths. But unlike tensile strength, in which a material returns to its original form after stretching, many Hillcrest theater students—even those who aren’t “stars”—are forever shaped by their time with these teachers.
“I’m an FSY [For the Strength of Youth] counselor this summer, and one of the main reasons I’m doing that is that I believe in the power of youth,” says Elizabeth Martin, a Hillcrest graduate and BYU student. “That concept will always abide with me, and I learned it from doing theater at Hillcrest.”
Long never intended to become an educator. A native of Oregon, a “paralyzingly shy” teenager, and the second-oldest of nine children, he grew up in Alpine, Utah. His shyness made it difficult when, during his freshman year, Mountain Ridge Junior High’s Shakespeare team summoned him to rehearsal. He went so he could explain the mistake, he says, “but I stayed, and I loved it.”
Long became theater president, attended BYU, and served a mission to João Pessoa, Brazil. He planned to graduate in theater directing and then enter a master’s program in staging Shakespeare at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. “But I kept being sad about not working with teenagers,” Long says. “On my mission, I worked a lot with teenagers, and I really enjoyed it. In March of my last year at BYU, someone asked me my plans. I told them and added that I’d like to find something so I could direct and do theater and work with teenagers. They said, ‘Why don’t you be a high school teacher?’ My response was, ‘Ooh, no. That would be terrible.’”
But the idea stayed with him, and he discovered a 12-month master’s program in teaching at Western Oregon University that was still taking
applications for the fall.
“I told myself, ‘After that, I’ll go to London, and I’ll have the teaching certificate if London doesn’t work out,’” he says. But one thing led to another, and he was eventually offered a job at Hillcrest by the school’s then principal Sue Malone. “When she called, I said, ‘Oh, um, I don’t know that I want to accept that,’” he says.
“She said to me, ‘Do you know how many people interviewed for this job?’ I decided that I’d do it for one year and assess at the end if I wanted to keep doing it—and I have consciously made that decision every year since.”
Long inherited a program that was renowned for its elaborate, cast-of-hundreds fall musicals but that didn’t even have a full day of theater courses. For seven years he built the program, adding classes, straight plays, and a Shakespeare team. Eventually Malone approved hiring a part-time stage crew teacher who started the same year as student teacher Giselle Gremmert.
Gremmert did theater at her Topeka, Kansas, high school, performing and working backstage due to a sophomore-year epiphany: “I was sitting out in the auditorium, and our student stage manager was sitting on the stage with the directors. I just had this moment when I thought, ‘I don’t want to sit here. I want to sit in front of the stage. I want to make it happen.’”
Still, Gremmert got hung up trying to choose a major while applying to BYU. “My mom and I were on our computer scrolling and scrolling through the majors, and three-fourths of the way down she stopped and said, ‘Theater education! You’d be good at that,’” Gremmert says.
“I was like, ‘Okay, click that one.’ Between applying in the fall and graduating in the spring, I got really excited about the idea.”
Gremmert shaped her life around her major, including “dates” with her eventual husband, Jake Gremmert. “He came backstage in the hallway during the show and brought packages of Hi-Chew, and anytime I had a few minutes when I didn’t have a cue, I went out and talked to him and then rushed back in,” she says. “I don’t like hobbies. I have no hobbies. My only hobby is theater. It’s doing this.”
That single-mindedness could be one reason BYU Theatre and Media Arts professor Julia D. Ashworth assigned Gremmert to student teach with Long. When Gremmert heard her assignment, she panicked: it was a 45-minute drive on a student gas budget
“I explained all of my concerns to [Ashworth],” Gremmert says. “She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Giselle, Hillcrest High School is where you need to be. You need to be teaching with Joshua Long.’”
Ashworth worked out a scholarship to cover Gremmert’s gas costs so she could spend a semester teaching alongside Long. “It was his first time sharing the theater department,” Gremmert says. “It led to some really cool moments”—such as a six-hour, two-show production of Nicholas Nickleby and a staging of Starlight Express on roller skates that included track-like sets cantilevered out over the auditorium seats. It was an “insane” experience, but Gremmert loved it—maybe too much.
“As it was ending, I was thinking it might be Hillcrest or bust: if I’m not going to teach at Hillcrest as a second teacher—where I can have a lighter load but still do this level of theater—I’m maybe not going to do it,” she says.
Long gets emotional recalling that moment: “I remember her walking out to the faculty parking lot that last day, and I remember telling her, ‘I absolutely respect your decisions, but you are really good at this.’”
Then, an unexpected plot twist: the part-time teaching job opened up when the previous teacher left. Naturally Gremmert applied, becoming a first-year teacher and a first-time mother the same year, which is par for the course in terms of her zest for leaping into the unknown.
“What Giselle does is she takes things and makes them more than I ever imagined they could be,” Long says. Such as the day he called Gremmert from his annual theater-watching trip in Britain with an idea for a production of David Copperfield. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how this would look, but what if the audience moved during the play?’” he says. “I’m expecting her to tell me all the reasons it wouldn’t work, but that is not her instinct. She said, ‘That sounds crazy, and here’s how we could do it.’ That collaboration is so great. It spurred me on to say, ‘Oh, then, how about this? And then, how about this?’”
Other philosophies Long and Gremmert share are never repeating shows and continually challenging themselves and their students. “The only reason we did a certain number of plays was because I or somebody else said they’re too hard to do at a high school,” Long says. “When that happens, we’re like, ‘Shoot, that means we have to put it in the season and just see! Just see where our limits are. Teenagers are capable of so much.’”
Long and Gremmert continually experiment onstage and off, from elaborate sets and effects to limited-commitment schedules that let newbies try out theater. They also insist students conduct themselves exactingly: Show up. Be committed. Cheer others’ successes as much as your own. Play your part, however big or small, as if the whole production depends on it.
It seems to work. Besides nearly continual success in individual and ensemble events at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Utah High School Activities Association drama competitions, and the Utah state musical theater contests, Hillcrest theater has twice won the Utah “triple crown”—first place overall in all three contests in one year.
But more meaningful to Long and Gremmert is what their students carry from Hillcrest theater into the rest of their lives. “They dedicate themselves so much to it—not just in time but in passion—and they raise us to that level of dedication,” says Hillcrest alumna Elizabeth Martin. She continues: “We see that passion, and it pushes everyone to put in their best. I am making a lot of life choices right now that come from knowing I can do more, that I can do the impossible, because they expected that from us. I always want theater in my life, even if it’s just as a supporter of the arts. And I’ll always want to come back to Hillcrest, whether it’s as part of an alumni panel or giving notes or whatever they need. Because it’s my home.”
Written by Stacey Kratz
Photography by Bradley Slade