Betsy Bishop’s successor says he has big shoes to fill, touts fall play as ‘epic production’ that’s nostalgic for ’90s kids
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
“She Kills Monsters” opens a four-show run Thursday, Nov. 16, at Ashland High School’s Mountain Avenue Theatre with a new theater teacher at the helm.
The school’s fall production involves mystery, imagination, adventure and several technical elements, said new theater teacher Shaun Hennessy.
“It’s kind of an adventure play,” Hennessy said. “I think it’s a great transition if you caught some of these students in a middle school production to see them make the transition to high school.”
The production has also served as a great design opportunity.
“We’ve got a lot of really talented designers working for us,” he said.” We’ve also got opportunities for students. We’ve got an animator in the show, a lot of different art forms coming together to produce this pretty big show really for a fall production. It’s a pretty epic production.”
“There’s a lot of fights happening, there’s a lot of different locales,” he added. “It’s kind of like an epic quest story or a hero’s journey, where this person is discovering their sister through this very epic quest. And it takes us back to a time in the ’90s where — I know I directly grew up in the time when this was being set, so, I’m hoping to appeal to parents, both young and old, who maybe grew up in ‘95 and want to kind of connect to some of that nostalgia, as well as see the really talented work that these kids are doing and the possibilities of the drama department going forward.”
An extra added bonus: There’s even Cheez Whiz in the show, he said, but theater-goers will need to attend to find out why.
The majority of the show, which casts 18, incorporates freshmen in addition to five seniors, which integrates well with the plot and themes in the play.
“It’s about a senior in high school whose sister who would be a freshman has passed away, but she left this D&D (Dungeons & Dragons game) that the sister Agnes goes through, with the help of some Freshmen friends,” Hennessy said.
“We’ve got a sophomore playing a senior in the show,” he added. “She’s doing an excellent job.”
Origins at SOU
Hennessy took on the role of AHS theater teacher this fall after longtime theater teacher Betsy Bishop retired after three decades leading the program.
He is a 2004 Southern Oregon University graduate and hails from the Portland area. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance degree at SOU.
“I’ve got a lot of differing experiences,” he said.
Hennesy was an actor in Kansas City before going into theater education. He comes to Ashland after teaching for a magnet academy in Beaverton for the past eight years. He also spent three years before that teaching English in Alaska.
“I’ve focused especially on amplifying female voices in my last eight years of teaching,” he said, during an interview at Ashland High on Nov. 3. “I’ve tried to do female-presenting stories where a lot of theater is written from the male perspective, especially the white, male perspective. And I still know a lot of great plays that focus on the male protagonist, but it’s been my focus these last 10 years to push those aside or push those in a different way.”
That philosophy also aligns with his plans for the spring musical.
AHS to produce ‘Matilda’ in Spring 2024
On Tuesday, Hennessy confirmed he can announce that AHS will put on a spring musical “Matilda,” a production anticipated to draw even more students.
He describes the upcoming spring production as involving a lot of design.
“It’s not rooted in reality,” Hennessy said. “You are going into a world of imagination.”
Auditions for Matilda will begin after Thanksgiving break, Hennessy said.
“These first two plays largely can cast a lot of the younger freshmen,” Hennessy said. “That’s a big part of what I’m working with building a new program is making sure that the kids that will be around for the next four years will have immediate access.”
As Hennessy has stepped into his new role, one thing he said he’s been hearing since taking the role is about the “big shoes” he has to fill since Bishop’s retirement.
“Big-shoes Betsy,” Hennessy said light-heartedly.
“She’s actually helping out with concessions (for this Thursday’s play) and organizing parents on this first show,” he added. “She’s still in town, she still texts me pretty regularly.”
Bishop was at AHS for 35 years, including 30 years leading the theater program. She has an extensive resume, including a total of 47 years in education.
Bishop is well known for establishing a strong partnership with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which she said she hopes continues under Hennessy’s leadership.
She was celebrated by community members and former students in December 2022 for 30 years with the program.
Bishop praised Hennessy as he’s stepping into his new role and continuing the program.
“I think he’ll be great,” Bishop said. “He’s experienced, he’s worked with a couple of different levels, middle school and high school. And he has lots of cool ideas.”
She especially praised his efforts to continue the tradition of holding a haunted house around Halloween, which she attended, that benefits the program.
“As a theater teacher, you have to keep raising money,” Bishop said.
Following some footsteps, but also emphasizing design
Hennessy emphasized plans to continue a strong partnership with SOU’s theater program and would like to continue to work together with OSF.
“We’re talking about integrating more of the connection between the university and the high school,” Hennessy said, “but, also looking at implementing elements of design.”
He said the process of performing countless rehearsals gives students a chance to develop perseverance and dedication and work with individuals who are different, in addition to working on different aspects of a larger project.
“Those kinds of themes are present throughout the (theater) learning experience,” he said.
Hennessy also hopes to increase performance classes at the high school.
“I’m halftime theater, halftime English right now, and I hope to grow it so I’m full-time theater,” he said.
He’s hoping to grow the numbers in his design classes, too.
“I think about what my students will do post-secondary pretty regularly,” Hennessy said, as it relates to the current curriculum.
In addition to teaching theater and English, Hennessy is working towards certification in Career Technical Education (CTE).
“I’ve been trying to foster technical theater involvement for the past eight-plus, nine-plus years,” Hennessy said. “I’m hoping to build up a stronger design tradition.”
He’s already earned props from one significant supporter who’s been down that theatrical road.
“I appreciate him because he just jumped right in,” Bishop said of Hennessy. “I admire him and I think he’ll do a great job.”
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.