Community Spotlight: Kathleen McNulty Mann

By Ginny Butsch posted 05-02-2017 09:13


One of the main goals for our Theatre Education Community is to help theatre students and professionals from all over connect and identify with each other in order to build resources and support the theatre education field. We shine a spotlight on a different member every other week by conducting a simple interview.

Our latest Spotlight Member is Kathleen McNulty, the theatre teacher and troupe director at Arnold High School in Panama City Beach, Florida, home to Thespian Troupe 6371. Kathleen is also a Thespian Alum (even serving as Troupe President), which has provided her a vast amount of experience to share and allowed her to pass on the Thespian tradition to her students and fellow theatre educators.

Ginny: Why do you believe theatre is important?

Kathleen: This is a really difficult question. It might be better to ask, how can theatre not be important? 

Ginny: What inspired you to become a teacher?

Kathleen: One of my mentors from high school ran into me after I graduated from college and was working at a different job (not teaching). I was unhappy with the direction of the job and wasn't sure if I was going to stay. I shared this with her and she said, "You know, I always thought you should have been a teacher." She could tell that interested me, and by the end of our discussion, she asked if I'd come see her at work. Turns out, she had moved into a vice principal job at a high school and when I went to visit, she started talking to me about a position that was opening up to teach reading and English to struggling and special education students, and to help with drama club after school. I applied within the week and two weeks later I was in the classroom. She was my initial inspiration, and she couldn't have been more right. Now, the students inspire me.

Ginny: What advice do you have for new theatre teachers?

Kathleen: Start slow and take it slow. Quality over quantity is the best way to get started. Don't worry about having 100 students and huge sets with 15 costume changes for everyone, just begin with good scripts, a simple but clear plan, and build up slowly. It will be easier for you and the students to do well and feel successful. Meanwhile, when you build up slowly, you don't notice exactly how much you are taking on as you add new things. Our brains and bodies are muscles. Running three shows simultaneously while teaching six periods a day and still having time to feed your dogs and take a shower once in a while doesn't come naturally, but if you build up to it over several years, it doesn't seem like such a crazy idea. 

Ginny: What does a typical day look like for you?

Kathleen: I wake up at 6:00am every morning to the first alarm. I'm up and going pretty quickly, and though I don't have to be at work until 7:45, I like to cook a real breakfast for myself and pack a lunch every day. It keeps me going through the day and gives me energy to run when I have good meals. When I get to school, I teach six periods of theatre courses alongside the other theatre teacher at my school, who also teaches six classes. Our program includes courses in Musical Theatre, Dance, Technical Theatre, Costumes, Makeup and Hair, and Acting, all at various levels throughout the day. After school, we run rehearsals or hold I.T.S. meetings for two or three hours, depending on the day. Often we also have events in our auditorium afterwards and on weekends, which our theatre department actually manages, so it's not uncommon for me to be at school much later. If I go home after rehearsal, I cook dinner for myself and my husband. I LOVE to cook, and we hang out with our dogs and binge on Hulu and Netflix and video games. If we are feeling ambitious or if it's a Friday or Saturday night and I'm free, we play tabletop board games with friends. Every Sunday, I have brunch with friends too. I rarely work on Sundays, so this tradition is part of what keeps me grounded. Unless I'm at the school, I am in bed and asleep by 10:00pm most nights. 

Ginny: Have you found a way to achieve a good work/life balance? If so, share your tips!

Kathleen: As stated above, I'm not always the best at it. But I do have some tips:

  1. Don't have children. That's a joke, but seriously, I think it helps that I really only have to take care of me and that my husband and I take care of each other. If there were a helpless human in that mix, I think it would be more challenging to balance things.

  2. Be proud of being a creature of habit and make great routines. Most weeks, I wear the exact same clothes, I eat the same thing for breakfast almost every morning, I go to bed at the same time every night. You could almost set a clock by my routines. All of these help stop me from wasting time on things that don't really matter and keep me eating and sleeping properly. 

  3. If you are an extrovert like myself, make sure you find time to interact with people outside of work to do and talk about things besides work. I play board games with friends as often as possible, and I have a standard brunch date with friends every Sunday. This keeps me grounded and is a helpful reminder that the world is bigger. 

Ginny: What is the resource you most recommend to other teachers?

Take advantage of other theatre teachers in your area. For me, this is most of all the teachers in I.T.S. Florida State Thespians District 1, and the theatre educators who are part of the Florida Association for Theatre Education (F.A.T.E.). When I get together with other theatre teachers, I feel like I am not alone in my challenges and I am able to steal and ideas share ideas freely in a way that helps all of us. We also get to commiserate. Other theatre teachers will tell it like it is, and they will hold you up when you are feeling like you can't handle it. We are also all quite amazing in our abilities and our training, so sharing that with one another is just as valuable, if not more so, than having professionals train and share, since we as educators understand our unique needs. I love the opportunity to steal and share lesson plans and solutions, and every theatre teacher, new, seasoned, and otherwise, can benefit from interacting with others in the profession. 

Ginny: What was the first play you ever saw?

I think I was in plays before I had even seen one. As a child, I did community theatre, drama summer camps, and school productions from around the time I could ask to perform. The first play I vividly remember seeing was, "You Can't Take it With You," somewhere around 3rd grade. It was a community theatre production, and a very good one as I remember it. It mostly went over the heads of third graders I'm sure, but I vividly remember being fascinated that Penny got to talk about her "sex plays." This was delightfully scandalous to my third grade brain.

Ginny: What was the most difficult element of a production you’ve ever had to manage?

Several years ago, we produced a stage adaptation of the amazing Y.A. novel, "The Giver." Not only is the world of the show completely black and white, which required a LOT of stage makeup and hair dye and careful lighting choices, but we had to have red begin to appear, seemingly magically, on stage to the main character and audience. Most complex of all were flashbacks in the form of "memories," that had to be presented and experienced by the main character. This includes the appearance of an elephant and a boat floating on water. In order to have the audience see and feel this without disrupting the world of the show, we spent a lot of time brainstorming. It was the students who figured out an idea to make these happen. At first I wasn't sure it would work, but we started playing with it, and it was hauntingly striking. We used a rear projection screen and placed a light behind it that we frequently changed out the gels on, and even made our own gobos and gel combinations for. Between the light fixture and the screen, actors would enter to create shadow silhouettes and form their bodies into the shapes of things like the elephant and the boat. We are seeing this type of stuff now on shows like "America's Got Talent," but at the time I hadn't seen it, and neither had anyone else we encountered. It was challenging and creative, and landed us the opportunity to perform as a mainstage production at the Florida State Thespian Festival, where we were able to share our work with thousands of other students from across the state. It was a powerful experience for the students and an intense challenge to tour such a production.

Ginny: Everyone has at least one good theatre story. Tell us yours!

In high school, I was playing the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” which involved a lot of flash paper and smoke machine smoke. I almost choked to death when the trap door malfunctioned during the melting scene and I couldn't get out of the smoke. I ended up jumping pretty far down off of the back of the platform I was on in my heavy dress and character shoes. In the magic of the theatre, the audience was none the wiser as I belted, "I'm melting, oh what a world," while crouching down slowly, waiting until the trap door started, until I could no longer breathe and simply jumped.

Ginny: What is unique about your theatre program?

We are extremely student driven. We allow opportunities for student directors, we regularly produce original student works, our students completely run our auditorium, they do all of the publicity, and they are truly in charge of things like fundraising and program development. If there is anything they want to do, they have to do it. We operate without a boosters program, so the students even do large scale fund development, and write their own grants. This tends to be one of the most unique things. We grew into this over many years, but slowly the students have taken over almost every aspect as the program has grown to include hundreds of students each year. Of course, we as teachers still provide training, support, direction, and guide the exploration and play, but the students often do these things as well through established mentoring from experienced students to new ones, and through classes structured with advanced and beginner students in the same room. We are, in fact, so student leadership focused that our students often are surprised that other schools, and even their college programs, ask so little of the student leaders. They just assume that the expectations we as a troupe have formed are the standard.

Another unique item is that we offer our productions with a "pay what you can," admission. We have a beautiful 988 seat auditorium at our school, so we have a lot of seats to fill. The students decided about seven or eight years ago, when working with a local free Shakespeare company to put on Romeo and Juliet, that they could maybe make more money and have more audience by not charging a set price for shows. We have opened it up and enjoyed larger audiences, and sometimes more money total on large productions than we ever made when we charged. And now when the students seek high level sponsors for the season, they are able to talk about giving back to the community through this policy since someone who might not otherwise want to or be able to attend due to cost, can come any time.

Ginny: Tell us about the moment that made you decide to get involved in theatre.

I was too young to know what I was really asking for I think, but I know I wanted to dance, and sing, and play pretend on stage and I asked for it. My parents didn't know what to do with their precocious, chatterbox of a child, and enrolled me early in opportunities like dance classes and theatre camps in order to hopefully channel all of that. I took to it like a duck to water and grew up, basically, in the performing arts. In kindergarten, I played a pony that I don't believe had a single line but led the other "ponies" around the stage, surely being bossy at rehearsals. By 5th grade, I was the lead in a musical and by 7th grade, I was directing plays. I'm not sure it was a conscious decision, it was just where I belonged.

Ginny: Name something on your bucket list.

I am a traveler at heart and I dream of, at some point in my life, touching each of the continents.

Ginny: How do you relax after a busy day?

Cooking and baking. I easily spend two hours a day in the kitchen cooking, if I am not working late.

Ginny: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of theatre?

I play board games like crazy. I love complex and intense strategy based games. There were more board games on my wedding registry than anything else. It's something I enjoy with my husband, friends, and my family. We all play together. A deck building game titled "Dominion," is my current favorite.

Ginny: What is something we would be surprised to learn about you?

My undergraduate degree is in Political Science. I studied at American University in Washington DC and I planned for a career lobbying for youth rights advocacy organizations. I realized I didn't like national politics quickly, and returned home after college to work in the non-profit world and have more of a local impact through program and fund development. I bring this background to my approach of our theatre department. I had experience writing grants and in large scale events, and major fund raising before I started teaching, and now I teach those skills to my students. 

Ginny: What is your favorite part of the day?

Crawling into bed at night. I am an eight hours of sleep kind of person and getting into bed is a great satisfaction to me.

Kathleen’s theatre students have such an exciting amount of leadership opportunities, I think we can expect to see many successful alumni graduating from Arnold High School. If you enjoyed Kathleen’s interview as much as I did,
add her as a contact in the Community.

Do you know someone who deserves a moment in the Spotlight? Tell me their name and why at Want to read more Community Spotlights? You can find them here.