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 next Spotlight is Maria Stadtmueller, the theatre director at St. Augustine School in Kendall Park, New Jersey. Maria has been providing consistent advice and encouragement to fellow Community members for the last few years.
Why do you believe theatre is important?
Theatre is important because it gives you a chance to express yourself without being judged. You are saying the words not as yourself, but as your character. It gives you permission to be bold and strong and bombastic without apology. Theatre is important because it teaches many skills, including teamwork: all working toward a common goal. It builds confidence, commitment, and public speaking skills.
My high school theatre director, the late, great, Victor R. Saginario, taught me many life lessons. He took kids from difficult situations and brought us together and made us a theatre family. We were a band of misfits who fit together. He rarely gave us praise but put us in situations where others would praise us. He said, “the audience will tell you how good you are.” He put us in situations that would allow us to shine and taught us the skills to grow as performers and public speakers. It was from his legacy of love that I learned what to do with my own kids and that’s what I try to do with my theatre students: give them something to be proud of. Everyone can shine if given the chance. I try to give everyone their moment in the spotlight, no matter how large their part. As a director, I create space for the ensemble players to be featured.
Scarecrow (Maria) & Dorothy (Anna-Vocal Director) at a theatre fundraiser
Tell us about the best day of your career.
The best day of my career was winning Best Production at Bucks County Playhouse Competition directing Interview.
What is the resource you most recommend to others in your profession?
A theatre teacher’s best resource is every person she has ever met with a skill or a willingness to help: piano player, musicians, music directors, videographers, sound guru’s, choreographers, painters, artists, sewers, helpers, donors, loaners, etc. I hope everyone is lucky enough to get a Mrs. G.
Do you have any tips for new theatre teachers?
Choose your show for the cast you have, not because it’s a show you want to do.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
“You can’t want it for them.” This advice has served me well not only in theatre but in all aspects of life: with my own kids, in management positions, while coaching, in leadership roles, etc. I often tell my students: “I have done my job, the builder has done his job, the scenery designer has done her job, the vocal director has done her job, the choreographer has done her job, now you have to do your job. I can’t want it for you; you have to want it for yourself.”
What is your favorite musical or play? Why is it so special?
My favorite musical is The Wizard of Oz!!! My curio is full of memorabilia including many Jim Shore pieces and a large framed photo of the original cover of the book. I have directed Oz twice and Asst. Directed it once. It is always my go-to show when starting a new program. All you need to know is that you have a Dorothy and you can safely pick it. I basically have Oz in a box in my basement, complete with monkey wings, vests, noses & spears, green attire, wigs & glasses, etc. I so love the story of the girl who figured out that “there is no place like home.” Something I’m counting on my kids knowing as I age. The music is fantastic and not to forget that it was the first color movie: spectacular visuals!
Tell us about the moment that made you decide to get involved in theatre.
Like many others, I got involved in theatre because a boy I liked was very involved. When he dropped out of our troupe, I had already caught the bug, so I stayed. He and I remained close until his passing years ago. My husband and I met doing a show at a Community Playhouse and have been married for 32 years. Our three daughters all did theatre in high school. One was House Manager in college, two sing professionally, one does commercials.
Meet Me in St. Louis: In St. Louis at the Fair rehearsal (St. Augustine School, 2018)
What is unique about your school’s theatre program?
Our program allows 4th-8th grade to audition and invites PreK-3rd to join for 2-3 scenes, always including a kick line. We are lucky to have a professional artist volunteer to create our set. All other aspects of our crew are student run: Stage Manager, Lights, Curtain, Stage Crew, Costume helpers, props, spotlight, and microphones. I sit in the audience and parents aren’t permitted backstage on show night. I go through 200-300 plays per summer to find the one with enough featured roles for the cast we anticipate. I try very hard to honor the 8th graders with the largest roles they are ready for, be it a lead, supporting, or featured. I don’t precast, but I make sure I have enough decent roles for the kids who are ready. There is nothing more frustrating for students than a director who picks a show with only 4-5 nice size roles but has 9-10 kids who are ready for leads. It’s time consuming to find the right fit, but I strive to find a place for each student. I find that as my program grows, I go with smaller publishing companies that offer lesser known shows with more featured roles.
Everyone has at least one good theatre story. Tell us yours!
When I first started directing 13 yrs. ago, the school stage had no front or side curtains. The last two weeks, we put up panel dividers on the sides and covered them with paper to block the audience’s view and the Knights of Columbus sponsored us with a front curtain and two new speakers for the wall just before show night. I rented microphones for $1,000, but all we could hear from our new speakers was the hum from our ancient lighting panel. Next, my brother brought his band speakers, which were blown out by his rock & roll band. It was a parent DJ to the rescue. Thanks, Mr. Shubes!
Is there one student you will always remember? Why?
I make it a habit to call the kids by their character names. It’s not only a term of endearment, but it helps when I’m giving constructive criticism for them to not take it personally. All the kids think that they are my favorite. One time I asked at our drama dinner, “who is my favorite” and we heard, “I’m your favorite,” “I am,” “It’s me,” from 7-8 kids. There have been a few favorites along the way: Danny, Katie, Christopher, Sherms, Brigid, Karen, Nicky, Anna, Rosie, Peter, Pappy, Gabby, Adrian, Erin, Sasha, and Sharbella. Most of whom I’ve stayed friends with their parents. For one, I was her Confirmation sponsor. Theatre has a unique way of creating a bond. You really get close to the kids and the parents in a way that you don’t in the classroom. Maybe because you’re not grading them, maybe because you spend so much time together, maybe because you pull out the best in them, maybe because they feel so much pride in a job well done.
Director (Maria), Choreographer (Karen), Vocal Director (Anna), Music Director (Matt), Annie Oakley ‘11 (Brigid) at a theatre event (2019).
What is the most difficult element of a production for you?
The hardest thing for me is that after I diligently comb through hundreds of plays over the summer, make my short list, and make my decision, I spend the next few days worrying if picked the right one. My kids say, “Ma, you go through this every time.” I’ve learned that it is just part of the process for me because I want to honor these kids. I’ve learned to be okay with being uncertain because it only lasts a few days.
Name something on your bucket list.
To go to the Land of Oz, complete with the Yellow brick Road in NC and The Land of Oz and Storybook Land in N. Dakota. The one in NC is only open once a year for three weeks and you don’t know if you got tickets until the day before. I also want to see the Vatican & Niagara Falls before I die.
What is something we would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve got 120 typed pages of a book I’ve been writing about my father. Someday, I hope to be lucky enough to publish. I think I have a whole set of books in me, one for each of my 7 siblings. I’m also writing a rule book, mostly for parents but worthwhile in general. I have a lot to say.
For 9 months a year, I go nonstop and then I take a break for the summer to recharge. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, I sit by the pool and relax under my big floppy hat. I sit out every day that I can from 11am-8pm, if it is above 80 degrees. I read a book, I play backgammon, I read and research plays and just chill.
What are your proudest accomplishments?
My best achievements are who’s instead of what’s. My kids are successful adults with good jobs and good hearts and my soul is intact. Sure, it’s nice to hear compliments when I put on a good show, but when a teacher or principal tells me that a particular student is a different person on stage than they see in the classroom, it makes me feel so proud that I was a part of that for that child. When others see a student as super shy and scared all the time and I only know her as a strong, confident young woman who belts out a song or commands a scene, it is a great source of pride for me. I always remember that Leader Poem from Girl Scouts: “My dishes went unwashed today, I didn’t make the bed. I took God’s hand and went with Him to Girl Scouts instead. That my house was neglected, that I didn’t sweep the stair. In twenty years no one on earth will know or even care. But that I helped a little girl, from child to adulthood grow. In twenty years the whole wide world will look and see and know.”
Godspell dress rehearsal (Christ the King School, 2010)
Do you have hobbies or interests outside of theatre?
I love the Yankees. I played softball for many years and coached for 20 yrs. I was a Girl Scout as a girl and a leader for 20 yrs., holding many positions including Service Unit Manager, Master Trainer, and Council Delegate, and received the Honor Badge, the highest award given to adults in Scouting. I love to play golf with my husband and 4 adult children. I’m two strokes away from, “wow, you really stink”, but I love it: the smell of the grace, the view from the green, just me and the ball. We are avid theatre goers. Our friends say, “The Stadtmueller’s: single handedly supporting the arts”. We see a show of some kind almost every week: Broadway, Off-Broadway, Equity, Community, College, HS, Grammar, Camps. We are forever seeing live shows. My middle daughter is an assistant director at the school where she teaches, my oldest, a doctor, is my volunteer Vocal Director and taught for many years; my youngest is my volunteer choreographer so our students invite us a lot to their productions.
What is something we would be surprised to learn about you?
Surprising: Although I love Shakespeare, my favorite show is The Walking Dead! It’s not about the Zombies, it’s the story they tell about humanity. And, my favorite movie is Transformers.
What is your favorite part of the day?
My favorite part of the day is late at night when everyone is asleep. I’m a night owl so I do a lot of show preparation sitting up in bed: weekly reminders, letters & forms, costume lists, blocking, etc. Theatre tasks are often done in the wee hours of the morning. Reruns of NYPD Blue keep me company from 1-5am. I do my best thinking when the house is quiet and I have a long stretch to get things done.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I love NJ. We are close to the city and the beach. It’s a great place to live. I’m never leaving. However, if all my kids move away, then I’m moving near the one who gives me grandkids.
What are your plans for the fall?
Our upcoming fall musical will be Hoop! The Basketball Musical written by Richard & Martha Chiarappa and published by Eldridge. We were two weeks from Show Night when school moved online. We are so lucky that while many schools cancelled their productions, St. Augustine School in Kendall Park, NJ has allowed us to postpone it to the fall. We may end up on Zoom but we are hopeful for an On Stage or Outdoor Production. The author and publisher have granted us Livestream and Broadcasting rights as needed. From the beginning of licensing, the authors and I have been pen pals through email. It has been a great journey for me, getting to share our progress with the authors. They hope to attend our Show and will be having a Zoom chat with our students. Eldridge has also been great to work with.
If you enjoyed Maria’s interview as much as we 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 email@example.com. Want to read more Community Spotlights? You can find them here.