This Crazy Life

Tucson High drama teacher Art Almquist doesn't shy away from controversial material

"I love theater that shakes things up a little bit," says Art Almquist. That statement is all well and good coming from an actor in the community, which Almquist is, but it's not the sort of thing you'll often hear from a high school drama teacher who wants to keep his job. Which Almquist also is.

Yet not only has Almquist spent the past dozen years shaking up the students and the establishment at Tucson High Magnet School; he's survived with hardly any parental complaints about the issues he's plunging their tender children into onstage. (AIDS! Environmental activism! Anti-war protest! Transsexuality!)

Almquist has even been rewarded for his efforts. Several weeks ago, he was honored by the Tucson Pima Arts Council, which gave him its annual Lumie award in the Arts Educator category.

As if a guy like Almquist needed any further encouragement.

"I believe in this art form as a way for the students to transform themselves and to transform the world," he says.

When mounting a play on a difficult topic, Almquist loads his drama students up with background material, and has experts on the subject talk with the students and sometimes with the audience in a post-performance forum. Several times, he's used productions on challenging issues to raise money for community organizations.

Radium Girls, for example, was the true story of young women being poisoned by their work with radium in a watch factory, and how one worker sued the company. Almquist and his students turned this into a breast-cancer fundraiser, and an attorney and a hospice nurse spoke with students about the issues in the play.

"It was like a full immersion," recalls Natalia Zbonack, who starred in that show. "It really helped me decide how I was going to approach the character."

Participation also helps the students decide how they're going to approach life. Consider the production of Vietnam 101, a play following the effects of that war on students at Oberlin College. Almquist bombarded the students with research on the period, and asked two protesters and an Oberlin alum from the period speak to the kids during rehearsals. The production became a fundraiser for Amnesty International.

"Maybe one of the reasons I get away with so much is that the program gives back to the community," Almquist says. "It also has to do with how good the performances are. The positive energy carries through. And a lot of students left Vietnam 101 feeling like real actors and like activists, wanting to go out and do things in the community."

Almquist has actually turned a few of his students into "real actors." Aubyn Philabaum (daughter of glass artist Tom Philabaum), for example, just obtained her master's in acting from Yale, and is now working in New York City.

"I knew from the time I was very little that I wanted to be an actor, but at Tucson High, for the first time, there was someone besides my parents who spent a lot of time treating me as a professional actor rather than just a kid who liked to get up and play around on stage," she says of Almquist. "He was very specific about the training, and he taught me lots of different techniques, and I was able to take what worked best for me and use those in my rehearsal processes, even now."

Of course, most of Almquist's students find other lines of work once they graduate. Zbonack, the Radium Girl, is now a retail major at the UA and an assistant buyer at the UA Bookstore. She says, "I started out very shy, but because I was in those plays, I became more extroverted, and it helped me tremendously with public speaking. I'm totally comfortable now getting up in front of groups of people."

That's the sort of confidence-building that can happen through any good drama program, no matter the subject matter, and indeed, Almquist has done it with such high school standards as Our Town and The Crucible. But the year he selected those two mainstream shows, students were heard to mutter, "Those aren't Almquist plays."

Even when the semester's scripted play is not sociologically confrontational, Almquist has his advanced students working on independent projects that can be pretty scary. "At the beginning of the year," he says, "I tell them they will find some part of their life they're not comfortable talking about with other people, and turn that into a five- to 10-minute show, just for the class. You have to take a personal risk. And the kids actually look forward to it. Being a teenager sucks, and they all have stories to tell, and they have so few people who'll listen. The arts give them that outlet."

Says Philabaum, "One of his huge gifts is he teaches that acting is a very courageous art form, because you're showing your vulnerabilities; you're opening yourself up to the text and to the audience and to your fellow actors and to whatever may come your way. And he is able to create a safe environment so the acting students feel secure, and it's pure and it's honest, so the student really is able to go so much further and deeper into the work."

Almquist says it helps that there's another excellent drama teacher, Kathleen Erickson, on staff: "That means it doesn't all ride on my shoulders; my bag of tricks is only so big." And he's enjoyed full support from the four principals with whom he's worked. Plus, there's been not just tolerance, but praise from the parents. The only complaint he ever got from a parent was about a teen drinking scene in A.R. Gurney's otherwise innocuous The Dining Room. No outrage over the AIDS patients, the activists or the transsexuals. And, even though this is a right-to-work state, Almquist will undoubtedly get away with a fact-based pro-union show he'll be mounting in the coming year, The Triangle Factory Fire Project.

Almquist's secret: Taking all of the material seriously and not employing it for shock value.

"I believe the human condition is something in constant need of examination and celebration," he says. "Art is something that can help you make sense of this crazy life. It's a tool for transformation; you get so wrapped up in it that it makes you able to understand something in your own life that used to be a mystery."

And that is something as valuable as anything a teenager will learn from studying for the AIMS test.

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