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 Julie Hanisch, the English/Drama teacher at Mukwonago High School in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, home of Thespian Troupe 642. Julie has been exchanging ideas and advice in the Open Forum for a couple years now and has a clear passion for creating student leaders and providing a variety of theatrical opportunities.
Why do you believe theatre is important?
With most entertainment today being available in formats that can be replayed at any time, it's magical to give students the wonder of live performance and let them experience the joy that each show is a treasure in and of itself, never to be exactly the same as the night before. The challenge of having a single chance to get things right is one I think they relish, for when they accomplish that goal, it's a rush of pride for sure. Theatre is able to capture humanity in vivid, powerful moments, and those moments resonate with students. Theatre is one of the few areas where there truly is a role for most anyone: computer lovers, talkers, shy artists, construction workers, and so on... they all have a place in helping to mount a production.
Have you always known you would be a theatre teacher? Or what led you to this career?
I knew from high school onward that I would want to pay forward the joys my own high school theatre department gave to me. I came from a public high school theatre program in Racine, Wisconsin that had high expectations while still being fun, and I learned so much about how theatre can help one grow in a variety of areas. To be able to pass along that torch was inviting to me. I owe a lot to my former drama instructors in both high school in Racine and in college at UW-Whitewater, and I hope they know I try to carry forth many of the approaches they taught me.
Do you have any special training or skills?
I spent much of my earlier theatre days in stage management, and I'm partial to props since I love working with my hands. If I had the opportunity to work backstage more often, I would probably focus more on those areas, though I love most every aspect of theatre!
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is one filled with balancing production needs amidst the challenges of classroom teaching, family life, and personal goals. It's very rare to have a few minutes to sit back and do nothing, for there's always a publicity item to consider, a box office ticketing strategy to consider, a scene to block, a permission slip to gather, a student's question to answer, a purchase order to write, and so on. On most days, I don't get home from school until close to 8-10 p.m., and I'm thankful for such an understanding spouse during production season!
What is the resource you most recommend to others in your profession?
This is hard to say, but I think being a part of any theatre educator forum is a must. So many theatre educators have a wealth of experience to share, and I'm grateful for their insights. EdTA is one such example!!
Do you have any tips for new theatre teachers?
I would strongly recommend new theatre teachers acquaint themselves with a wide variety of performance formats. Classical theatre, one-acts, readers theatre, dramas, comedies, period pieces, and puppetry are just several examples of production approaches one can adopt, and the students appreciate the variety. With recent pandemic concerns, being able to adapt performances to different formats is especially useful.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given to you?
"Surround yourself with positive people!"
What is the weirdest stage food you’ve ever made or eaten?
This question makes me laugh because I had to make a large roast beef one time, and my mom and I took some styrofoam for the beef portion, covered it with brown roofing caulk, and painted some glaze over it to look like shiny gravy. It was a blast to make.
What is your favorite musical (or play)? What makes it so special?
I'm partial to MY FAIR LADY. It was my first musical in high school, and the music, setting, and characterization absolutely hooked me on how wonderful a musical could be. I bought the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison soundtrack right away, and to this date, I never tire of how "loverly" the numbers are! I also appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller's CRUCIBLE. Each time I read or teach that play, I discover another layer of Miller's playwriting genius; the script is like an onion with its many layers, and I hope to do the show sometime with my own students.
What was the first play you ever saw?
The first play I ever saw was THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN at Milwaukee's Riverside theatre when I was young. When the special effects of the racing, mad horseman with his gigantic pumpkinhead were projected onto the rear scrim, I was both terrified and delighted at the same time. I was only in elementary school, but I could appreciate even then how much a technical special effect could transport an audience. It was thrilling and probably represented what made me take a drama class in middle school.
What was the first role you ever played?
I had the fortune of playing Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman's CHILDREN'S HOUR, and when the audience members afterwards told me they wanted to strangle me onstage, I took that as a big compliment because of how manipulating and devious that character is. The audience isn't supposed to like Mary.
What is unique about your program?
I'd like to think we have a growing program for giving students opportunities to serve as leaders. Each technical crew is chaired by a student, and recently, we gave students an increased opportunity to direct one-acts. That might not necessarily be unique, but giving students opportunities to grow (and learn from failures), is a philosophy I feel very strongly about, and it's been a joy to see some of our current upperclassmen step into these roles as a result of the years of experience they've gathered since they were in ninth grade.
What was the most difficult element of a production you’ve ever had to manage?
Well, any time my students have to execute some kind of stage combat, I get personally nervous. A few years back, we did YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and the scene when Mr. Kirby is thrown to the floor was executed to great effect by two of our students who worked with our school's wrestling coach to perform an eye-catching wrestling flip move. They practiced on mats, but not until the closing night did I breathe more easily knowing the student being thrown was safe. They kept calling me a worry wart, but I couldn't help it!
What would you consider your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
Early in my career, I chose plays based on how well I liked the play and how well I thought the audience would like it. I learned quickly that such an approach wasn't wise, for it is far better to choose a play based on the current skill levels of one's actors and to find stories they can boost with their interests and energies. For example, a few years ago, we had an unusually high number of students who loved Shakespeare, so it was the right time to do A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. It's never possible to meet everyone's hopes when choosing a script, but honing my script selection process is always a goal I feel is worth attention.
Name something on your bucket list.
I would like to write my own book or my own play someday. I'm not sure if I'll be able to do this until after I retire, but it's something I'd like to try.
If you could have a different career, what would you choose?
If I were not in education, I think I would like to work in a bakery or deli. Or, I think I would enjoy driving for a senior citizen ride service. I like talking to people.
How do you relax after a busy day?
Nothing beats spending time with my husband and our two dachshunds. I often brew a cup of herbal tea, put my feet up, and just enjoy the time with them.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of theatre?
I am a huge baseball/softball fan and recently have found a new interest in learning about healthy eating recipes.
What is something we would be surprised to learn about you?
To this day, I still connect with my middle school speech/drama teacher, and that special connection still finds its way into my teaching and director work in our theatre. I'm very grateful for his inspiration, and in moments when I know inside that one of my own students is learning a concept I'm actually passing along from my old instructor, it privately warms my heart.
What is your favorite part of the day?
Honestly, I relish most the few minutes before I go to bed. The world has quieted down by then, no one is clamoring for an answer to something they needed yesterday, and I can spend some time thinking about the people and interests I enjoy.
What do you most remember from your childhood?
What I remember most is having a mother and father who loved me fiercely and who brought humor, resourcefulness, and confidence into the lives of my two brothers and me. They are my heroes, and I owe everything I am in part to their roles in my life.
If you enjoyed Julie’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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to read more Community Spotlights? You can find them here.