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School's off-stage star headed for Hall of Fame

Betsy Bishop still feels it — the magic, the buzz, the thrill. For her, the grind of teaching and sitting through countless auditions, rehearsals and plays almost every day for 28 years hasn’t diminished the allure of the stage. In some ways, in fact, time has only broadened the spotlight.

This is apparent in what she says about the theater and the process of teaching the subject to children, but what seals the deal is how she says it. There’s anticipation in her voice, a nervous laughter, quick asides about this kid, that show, and the protagonists of her stories are boys and girls who are now men and women, many of whom are still working the stage and credit their former high school theater teacher with inspiring their career choice.

“This is the truth,” she said. “I know people would laugh at me, but even after all these shows I see every single show. I never stay home and let somebody else be a supervisor. Even if I didn’t direct it, I watch every single show. I know exactly how the show progresses, and we always do nine shows of each production. I still feel that I’m vicariously on stage with them, and I get excited. When show starts, I’m like, ‘OK, it’s going to happen,’ watching every moment. I love it. It’s a fun addiction, let’s put it that way.”

Bishop has managed to turn that fun addiction into a sterling career at Ashland High School and in September she’ll be inducted into the Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the EdTA National Conference in Las Vegas. She’ll also receive the Inspirational Theatre Educator Award at the same ceremony.

Bishop, 63, learned of the honor during the Oregon Thespians State Festival in Salem April 2, although she tried to keep it under wraps because she didn’t want to siphon attention away from her students, who were there to perform, among other things, the festival-opener, “Radium Girls.” The EdTA Hall of Fame award is presented annually to up to five members who have worked for at least 20 years in educational theater. This year, four will be inducted: Bishop, Jeff Hall from Jesuit High School in Portland, Holly Stanfield from Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Paul Hampton from Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia.

An email congratulating Bishop was sent to her from the EdTA but was sent to an account Bishop rarely uses, so she was surprised when an EdTA representative approached her at the state festival.

“So then they said, ‘Well we’re going to tell you something; you got these awards and we’re going to call you up on stage,’” she said. “So they did, right in front of the 1,300 kids. They called me up and told me about the award and it was really wonderful.”

The latest awards are only the latest in a long list that takes up a big chunk on Bishop’s resume. She won the Outstanding Community Spirit award from the Oregon Thespian Board in 2015, helped AHS take the EdTA’s Outstanding School Theatre Award in 2013, won the Melba Day Sparks Award for outstanding theater teacher in Oregon in 2010 and the Southern Oregon Arts Teacher of the Year award in 2000. Also, Bishop’s AHS troupe No. 4630 has been named an honor thespian troupe 10 years in a row starting in 2006 and has been chosen eight times to perform a main stage show at the state festival.

Bishop was nominated for the inspirational theater educator award by AHS senior Christine Impara, the president of the Drama Club who has already been accepted at Willamette University, Bennington College and Loyola Marymount University. Whichever school she chooses, Impara plans to study theater there and counts Bishop as one of the main reasons why.

“(Bishop) pushes the limits of what high school theater can be,” Impara wrote to EdTA. “In one exercise that really improved our skills, Betsy gave us improvisational scenes that we had to act out in gibberish. Observing behavior, body and tone was really powerful. To make our acting more realistic, Betsy gave us a scene and we had to have a conversation with a partner about the topic in front of the rest of the class. Eventually it became really transparent and we forgot we were performing.

“One of the colleges I’m applying to asked me to list three heroes of mine. I wrote down: Meryl Streep, a runner and Betsy Bishop.”

Bishop also received major kudos from former Ashland High School principal and current Medford chief academic officer Michelle Zundel, who wrote to the EdTA a glowing letter of recommendation.

“A creative, resourceful, and loving teacher, Betsy works tirelessly to promote theatre and give students pre-professional theatre training while in high school,” Zundel wrote. “Collaborating with the community, connecting with students, and donating expansive amounts of her time, she has developed a top-tier theater program, launching artists in their careers on stage and backstage. Myriad graduates take the self-confidence, creativity, and love of theater, inspired by Betsy, into a multitude of professions.”

And many of those professions are related to theater. Indeed, dozens of Bishop’s former students, like Impara, were inspired to turn their favorite high school class into a major part of their daily life. Shana Cooper is a director and playwright for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Steffanie Leigh (formerly Steffi Garrard) played Mary Poppins on Broadway. Wade McCollum played the father in “Wicked” on Broadway. Jackson Rowe is the third director for the NBC television series “Grimm.” The list goes on and on and includes an army of singers, dancers and teachers, and even a lighting designer in New York City (Sol Weisbard).

“During my time at AHS,” Leigh wrote in a letter to the EdTA selection committee, “Betsy was teaching classes, running the Drama Club, fundraising, producing our never-ending list of shows, chaperoning, coaching, directing, advising and listening. She was always there for us.”

Besides her sphere of influence, Bishop also helped negotiate the partnership between Ashland High School and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a connection which began in 1993, when she took over as the school’s theater producer and director of theater.

The first product of that partnership was “A Company of Wayward Saints,” directed by OSF’s Kirk Boyd, and it has since produced two to three shows a school year, including this year’s acclaimed state festival opener, “Radium Girls.”

What the partnership provides AHS, explains Bishop, is access to professionals willing to essentially donate their expertise.

“I knew it was a gold mine,” she said. “It was fabulous. I had 20 to 25 professionals coming over to the high school. And then they said, ‘We should provide a master class.’ So they provided this class every other day in first semester called the OSF master class, and we focused on Shakespeare, and speech, and physicality and classic theatre. And we’ve had it all these years. I am the luckiest.”

AHS students also help produce the Green Show every summer.

“We really have an incredible situation that really nobody could imitate because we’re eight minutes from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” she said.

When asked if she’s thought about retirement, Bishop’s response should reassure anybody who's afraid to imagine Ashland High’s theater program without her.

“As my husband even said last night, ‘You’ll probably be so depressed if you ever retire,’” she said. “I have to say that I don’t see a reason to retire yet. I think the thing is that my job is like a coach. You know how you see those old coaches? They don’t quit because it’s an adrenaline rush for them. When I wake up one day and go, 'Oh, I’m too tired' or 'it’s too hard,' if I ever get to that place, I would put my papers in. But I never think about it. People ask me all the time. I don’t even know my retirement. I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t even looked into it.

“It’s like that saying Mame says in ('Auntie Mame'): ‘Life is a banquet and most people are starving to death.’”

May 20: This story has been updated to correct Wade McCollum's role in the "Wicked" production on Broadway and to clarify that Jackson Rowe is "the third director," not "a director," for the NBC series "Grimm."

A related story appears on A4. Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.