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Teaching Through Example...Bio of a blogger 

Todd Schaefer
St Louis, MO

My Education

I have been very fortunate in my life. I was consistently been given the opportunity to work and learn. I had the opportunity to work with some really terriffic, very intelligent instructors and theatre educators. I began my training way back in grade school with a tournament called the Ballermine Speech League. It was the best training ground for a young actor. We studied short pieces, rehearsed on a tight schedule, performed in front of judges and our peers, and had the variety of scene work and monologues. I did well in the competition, and I was fortunate to have had some great acting partners early on. I feel that the skill of listening to your acting partner can be very hard to acquire if you teach it too late. I was drawn to doing comedy and it seemed to fit that I always played the clown in any given scene. It was wonderful to work on pieces by Bill Cosby and Steve Martin as a 7th grader. All of my teachers that decided to work after school to train the young actors of the world kudos to you. The league was a great training ground for me and I did pretty well. I always leaned toward the comedy events and I really liked duet work. I enjoyed playing off others. My acting partners were always willing to go for the gold with a scene and it showed me that acting felt like you were playing a game of soccer (the preferred sport of my catholic childhood). I left feeling exhausted and energized after a tournament and the adrenaline became addictive. I wanted it all the time.

        I attended two different Catholic grade schools growing up and both of them offered this opportunity (I was very lucky). It was in the stars I guess. I attended St Angela Merici in Florissant, MO and Mrs. Luchnifeld (spelled wrong I know, but it was a bizarre name for a 4th grader to remember), Mrs. Stagowski (also spelled wrong I know) and Mrs. Carter.
        Neither school really had a play every school year but going back again to when I was in fourth grade (at S.A.M.) I was given the opportunity to play the lead in the school's play. The auditions had us singing, dancing and acting. I remember I had to sing "America the Beautiful".  If you were there, you saw a super excited fourth grader after that cast list went up. I think I even remember the wall they hung in on. I was given the part of the narrator. Up to that point I had watched all the older kids coming into our classrooms rooms performing pieces for their speech tournaments, and I wanted so bad to get up there. When I got the lead in the school musical everything changed. I knew that this was going to be what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I feel lucky to know that, and I have always been so thankful to Miss Strawn (the director or that musical) for casting me in that part. It changed my life. If I had bombed it could have gone differently, but I worked the crowd and made them laugh.
     The show had every kid they could fit on stage. I was front and center. I had the lead. I had to memorize 108 lines and my job was to portray an old man with a thick accent and hairy mustache. I had to sit in a rocking chair, deliver comedic lines and kept the story moving. It was thrilling, I loved the crowd and it was like they say...I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
     The show was called "How The West Was Won" and it was a story that combined the the story of the cowboys and indians and the story of Noah's Ark...and it was a musical. Leave it to Catholic school to put on that play. Never-the-less I was hooked.
     When the play was over, I was then invited to start performing with the Speech League. I had wanted to do this since seeing the first scene performed for us in first grade. It was like we had traveling street performers at the school. To get the actors ready they would go to different classrooms to run their pieces. We still do a little of that these days, but it's tough to interrupt classes in high school. The kids are ususually very busy.
      I did several different pieces for the speech tournaments, but my favorite scene I remember doing was where a dad and his son go to see a "Bugs Bunny Movie". I played the rather energetic child who just couldn't stay in his seat. It was fast paced and the jokes kept coming. The judges loved it. We made it to finals with that one. My next door neighbor and I performed it together and we had great chemistry going in. I did learn quite a bit about the importance of casting. I saw several performances at these tournaments that taught you exactly what not to do, or exactly what to do. It was natural for us to work together. I had grown up with Greg and we had played together for years. Imagination games and make-believe were the staple. The characters were fun and the jokes all came naturally. Mrs. Carter was a great coach and appreciative one-woman audience.
       I remember it being so much fun to do, and not being able to wait to go to rehearsal. It made school worth it in the end. I think that mentality about school stuck with me, and I was able to cope with the other stuff school made you do. I knew at the end of the day I would be someone else, and most likely acting the fool. This still applies to my day now. I still do most of my theater in the evening and it is what I love most. (I do love my job teaching theater, but they are different)
      When I was 13 years old and going into my 7th year of school my family moved. I was transferred to St Richard's in West County. Creve Coeur to be exact. It was new, but the house was not. My family moved into a really cool "fixer upper", and that's exactly what we did. My dad was very into carpentry and DIY projects, and he was very good. He taught himself how to do so many different things over the years and it was a huge inspiration to me and is a major reason I have the confidence to do what I do today. The time spent fixing up that house taught me the power of sweat equity and how much you can get done with elbow grease and just one person.
     This new experience at 13 took me away from the entire group of people I had grown up with and I had to make new friends. I remember talking with the people from my old neighborhood, but it was different. We eventually grew apart. The experience was shocking, sometimes I got sad, and it was also so exciting all at the same time. New places to go on our bikes. New people on our street. A new backyard. I remember being so scared to go to a new school, but it was smaller and I made friends very fast.
     St Richard's was a nice school. The people were nice. There I had the opportunity to work with Mrs. Fischer (mother to Jenna Fischer of The Office). She was a fabulous tough-talking smoker with a real flair for directing. It was a great grade school drama experience that I feel most don't have, and I am very thankful for it. By eighth grade I had quite a bit more confidence. You feel you are at the top of the totem pole. That was year of many firsts. I french kissed a girl for the first time at Six Flags that year. Good times.        Anyway, back to theater. Mrs. Fischer (my eighth grade teacher) was a real actor's director. I again had a great acting partner. Dave Bishof and I made a great team and had wonderful chemistry. We were the only two boys in the 8th grade class. It seemed weird at first coming from a much bigger grade school and having so many boys around. That feeling faded quickly when it began earning us pity points and boy did we use them! We were given soooo many extra privileges that the other kids didn't get.  It was awesome and made for a great end to a grade school career (middle school for most, but this was a very small catholic school)
      Dave and I had some girl duets from our class that gave us a run for our money. It was pretty cool that our tiny little class had so many funny people in it. I remember that they were so quirky and so many of them were just very funny people. When i have had the opportunity to see some of them now they prove to still have the humor. Since funny was the game we chose to do comedy that year, and I of course was the clown in the scene again (I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke were huge influences on my style). I liked playing big and broad, but I did learn early not to go for the laugh. I think that was something i felt made the activity so much more fun. It allowed me to just be the person I'm playing. I was taught very early to make very interesting physical choices. Things that this specific person would do in this very particular and rather unique situation.      
      The scene I remember the most in 8th grade was called "Joe's Pizza Parlor" and I played the guy that was trying to order a pizza and couldn't. Dave played Joe, the guy running the joint, who eventually lost his cool. It was a great little scene, very funny and it was cast by Mrs. Fischer perfectly. She really knew what she was doing. Dave towered over me physically. I was a late bloomer and didn't hit puberty until my freshman year in high school. I was a little guy. It was the perfect makings for physical comedy. We amped up that scene and had our judges roling. Again we brought home 1st place. I think we went all the way to finals with that one and one a trophy. Such a rush.
      Looking back it is interesting to see how important that recognition was to my confidence. I really used that energy from the tournaments to push forward to the next performance. Unfortunately we didn't do a play at St Richard's but we had plenty of talent shows and carnivals to keep me happy. I performed whenever I could, and if it involved a costume...all the better. I also did play sports to stay active. Mostly soccer, but I did try basketball. It was the game of choice at St Richard's We had kids in my class who's Dad coached SLU's Bilikens and they were good. So our team did pretty well, but it wasn't my game. I like watching on TV though.


So back to the bottom of the totem pole. I switched out of the Catholic school path and started my first year of public school with Parkway North High School.  It was fairly large school located on the edge of Chesterfield in West County St Louis. The school offered a ton of opportunity for it' students, and I was so lucky to have an incredible Theatre teacher by the name of Beth Rothermich.

      Beth Rothermich with her son 

She was a renaissance woman who ran a very successful high school drama department and she produced theater that was challenging and thoughtful. The shows she picked always had a reason, a purpose or a particularly powerful story. I learned how to plan a season by watching her lay out our shows for the year. She loved drama and tapping into the high school age student. She was an incredible director and she excelled at getting it done.

We usually produced two full length shows each year. We would also present student directed one acts, a follies (talent show) and other smaller performance events. I have learned that drama teachers can be put to work on countless events that go well beyond the drama department's season or schedule.

I was always impressed that she kept it all going. We always finished what we started and we always had a great community along the way. Beth was the core. She designed, organized crews, lead the build and (most of the time) painted all of the beautiful sets she had completed in her 30+ years of teaching. Amazing work ethic. She designed, hung, and focused beautiful lighting. She applied make-up like a pro. She inspired, she taught, she grounded us all in a strong foundation of study and respect for the craft and the process in achieving good theater and not allowing ourselves to label our work as just "high school" theater. We strove for professionalism and in the end we left with pride.

Some of my best memories from that program were the incredible shows.

Man of La Mancha (I got involved in the department by working on make-up and props)
Detective Story (I finally got cast and had my own scene with the lead character and had some good dialogue to play around with)
Fiddler on the Roof (I played the part of Motel and built over 40 beards for the men in the cast)
Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (I played the part of Roger the composer)

I also got to direct my first play called Murder Play and it was life changing. I knew I wanted to direct more after that experience. I had a great cast and we had so much fun in rehearsals.

In that four years I also performed in the talent shows, the lip sync contests (yes it was the late 80's and early 90's), and I began to sing more. I even got to sing with a quartet in the 92 Graduation Baccalaureate ceremony singing "Friends are Friends Forever" in four part harmony. I also got selected to sing at Prom, and we did a rendition of Billy Joel's "This is the Time". (That was with the awesome Matt Alber who is currently a working musician and travels the country singing with various groups. He has released two albums as a solo artist.)

Beth Rothermich was an amazing theater teacher. She taught a full day of theater classes, and ran an incredible program after school. I left high school wanting her job. I did end up teaching high school theater, but did not return my old stomping grounds.

College in Kirksville

The confidence I have for this subject is based on my liberal arts college education and BA Theater degree from Truman State University. I studied in three performance spaces and carried an emphasis in performance and Scenic/Lighting design.

Post College and Into the Real World

After graduating from Truman I worked at a bar/restaurant called Balducci's Winefest in West County. I lived with my partner in a small cookie-cutter apartment. I was a great six months. Learned how to bartend, how to host and how to wait tables. It was great. The food was awesome and I got reacclimated with St Louis after being away for 5 years.

Six months in West County was all I could take and we moved to the city in the fall of 1997 and ended up in a very cool apartment in the Shaw neighborhood just east of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. It was a  very large apartment with lost of room. We had friends in our building before long and my theater life returned.

I began to work with the New Jewish Theater First, then Hothouse Theater Co. at the ArtLoft, then Kirkwood Theater Guild, West End Player's Guild, New Line Theater, Then HotCity, Then I started a company called WAPP (The Washington Avenue Player's Project),  I worked as a display artist for Botanicals on the Park, I designed and managed at Robert Schmidt Costumes for two years, I worked with Ladue News as an ad rep assistant... and then I was recruited by Ed Grooms and I started teaching at Webster Groves High School. Now I have recently changed the name of WAPP to the Players Project Theater Company. 

Certification to Teach in St Louis

I have completed my teaching certification with UMSL and also began graduate level work toward my MAE. The time spent at The University of MO St Louis was good for the teacher's brain. I had some really great instruction in how to approach the method of teaching. I learned quite a bit about the adolescent and the way their brain grows. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be teaching while attending my classes, and that was helpful on the practical side. I was actually able to use what I was studying and it made the lessons more valuable. I immediate saw that reflection and the constant attention to adjustment was a key factor in teaching and keeping the job interesting. As times change the students do as well, and you must adapt to their needs and their perspectives.   

Theater Teacher

I have been teaching for many years now. It has been a great ride and I don't regret anything. In the time I have been teaching I have had many struggles, but I think I am working through the kinks and I feel that as i near the end of my first decade as a teacher I still need to reflect and learn more strategies and access my technique to get better with the material and to connect more with the kids.

The Worker Bee

Currently I am a working scenic designer, a working actor, an artistic director & founder of a local non-profit 501c(3) theater company in its 11th season, and currently holding a position as a midwest high school theater teacher/co-sponsor of the drama department. I believe that's enough...oh yeah and I'm now a blogger. Thanks for reading!

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