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Love of the craft leads Betsy Bishop to career as a teacher of theater arts

Ashland High School drama teacher Betsy Bishop, right, works out a scene with student actor Brooklyn Williams, who played two roles in the June performance of "Our Place" by Terry Gabbard. [Courtesy photo]

Betsy Bishop is one of the lucky ones. She gets to do what she loves most and get paid for it.

Bishop teaches drama at Ashland High School. She directs many of the plays and teaches theater arts at all levels. She also teaches English, cinema and stage management.

Brooklyn born, she grew up on Long Island, New York, where she discovered her love of theater, acting in more than 12 productions in high school. They included five dramas, four comedies and three big musicals.

“The joy I had performing all through high school, as well as in college and beyond, led me to teach high school theater,” she said.

Some of her plum high school roles were as Anna in “The King and I,” Mame in “Mame,” and Abigail in “The Crucible.”

She even got to try her hand at directing in those early years.

“I directed ‘Chamber Music,’ a one-act play by absurdist playwright Arthur Kopit. The story is set in 1938 and features eight famous women from different historical periods who all are interned in the same insane asylum.”

She continued her studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she earned a BA in speech and drama

During her college years, she gained considerable backstage experience, working in summer stock at three small theaters as a stage manager, sound operator and wardrobe manager.

Many people along the way have influenced her career — James Haigney, a high school director; Catholic University department chair Father Gilbert Hartke; and her screenwriter/actor husband, Wesley Bishop.

“Each of these artists encouraged me to trust my instincts, learn more, be more collaborative, and deepen my artist vision,” she said.

Add mom and dad to the list.

“My wonderful parents took us to Broadway shows and always encouraged all six of us kids to perform.”

Although her high school theater memories are still vivid, she counts two post-high school roles as unforgettable experiences.

“One of the roles I treasured was as Jill Tanner in ‘Butterflies are Free,’” she said, “because the character was so ditzy and goofy.”

Was it a stretch?

“Well, I can be really goofy, but I am an A-plus overachiever type, so, yes, it was a stretch. I had to say lines like this with a straight face: ‘I was going to go to UCLA, but I couldn’t find a place to park!’”

Playing Miranda in “The Tempest” was also a favorite. It was her first Shakespeare role, where she discovered her love of The Bard’s poetry and drama.

After 33 years on the job, her Ashland High gig continues to be a source of great satisfaction.

“Teaching is the best,” she said. “I really enjoy teenagers, even when they say and do the most ridiculous things. Every year is new and different. I share two joys with my theater kids: We love to perform and we love to learn.”

She regards AHS Theater’s 27-year partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as game-changing.

“It’s brought so many different artists to our campus,” she said. “It has allowed us to present such a broad spectrum of theater to our students.”

She believes working with OSF professionals has taught students good artist habits, and allows them to see that they, too, might have a life in the arts.

“Even if they don’t pursue the arts, the leadership and communications skills they learn are great for any field,” Bishop said.

The drama department didn’t take a break during the pandemic.

“We carried on and did a virtual take on all of our usual activities,” she said.

That included an outdoor Halloween Zombie Drive-By and the comedy “Clue,” produced on Zoom and directed by OSF actor Jonathan Luke Stevens. AHS’s production of “Clue” was chosen for the Virtual 2021 International Thespian Festival in June.

The department did four pieces for the Winter Fine Arts Festival, “On Stage from Home,” and a virtual “Musical Theatre Tribute.”

Bishop says she’s not a tech or computer type, but had the help of many savvy people around her — “like Kristen Samek, our tech theater director, and many super student technicians.”

With COVID numbers improving in June, and before the current uptick, they produced an in-person show, “Our Place,” a one-act comedy by Terry Gabbard. “We just decided to go for it.”

Are there any special challenges in teaching theater at the high school level?

“Youth and inexperience sometimes keep high school students from interpreting mature and complex characters easily,” she said. “However, usually their desire, intellect and discipline allow them to meet those challenges pretty well.”

If a student is insecure or lacks confidence, Bishop encourages risk-taking. “I want them to have fun experimenting.”

She enjoys her students’ sense of community.

“I like their engagement in fun and ownership of their own creative work,” she said. “I love watching them become stronger leaders over the four years.”

Classes are now under way at Ashland High, and the curtain rises Oct. 4 on the theater department’s first show, “Back to the Theatre Night,” with students from all classes performing.

The first musical, set for Nov. 12-21, will be either “Bright Star,” written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, or “Cinderella,” a hip, modern take produced on Broadway in 2013.

“Which musical we decide to do depends on the casting,” Bishop said. A decision will be made after Bishop meets this year’s drama students.

“School on Zoom for a year was hard on so many students,” Bishop said, “a year without the fun of mingling with their pals and acting in major productions on stage. But they will overcome.”

You can reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.