Coy Dunn is the fine arts coordinator for Marietta City Schools System and was a high school theater teacher and director for 27 years.
There are moments in life that change you forever.
For me, one of those moments came in the form of a high school drama class.
I was a typical high school student. I made all A’s and B’s, played sports, was a class officer and involved with several clubs. But none of those experiences had the lasting impact that occurred my junior year when I stepped into drama teacher Ms. Kay Hankins’ classroom.
Ms. Hankins was a petite lady, even in her heels. But her presence was undeniable. With one look, she could silence a room. With one smile, she could convince you of almost anything.
Ms. Hankins and that class inspired me to major in theater in college. My mother’s response was hesitation, while my father’s was more, well, straight to the point: “What the hell are you going to do with a theater major?”
Fate is a funny thing. Around the same time that I graduated from college, Ms. Hankins announced she was moving and her position would soon be open.
Before I could even hang my diploma on my wall, the sign outside of Ms. Hankins’ classroom was changed to bear my name.
Teaching theatre at Northwest Whitfield, Woodland and Kennesaw Mountain high schools over the course of my 27-year teaching career afforded me a front row seat to watching monumental changes occur in student after student, year after year.
I witnessed a shy freshman who avoided eye contact become an award-winning public speaker. I saw a stuttering sophomore evolve into an actor who was named best in the state his senior year.
I beamed with pride when the mother of a special needs student who, after graduation and receiving Employee of the Month from her employer, gave me credit for allowing her daughter the experience to gain the confidence and skills needed to be successful.
The arts are wonderful at teaching accountability and other life lessons. One of those lessons came in 2010 when the play I directed, “Romeo and Juliet,” won the region one-act play competition, advancing us (KMHS) to the state competition. At state, we were in the dressing rooms getting into our Shakespearean costumes when we realized the rack holding eight of our costumes for the crew members was accidentally left behind.
We had spent hours choreographing the opening with the curtain open while the crew set the scenery in place, moving the sets and themselves to music with full light effects. The eight crew members wearing modern clothing stared at me in disbelief, tears welling up in their eyes.
We had ten minutes before we were scheduled to take the stage.
We had a few extra costumes pieces, but it wouldn’t be enough. We gathered all of our families and friends and began borrowing sweatshirts and belts, assembling random pieces to make eight costumes. The costume crew pinned collars down and slacks up to look like knickers and added stockings. We covered shoes with black socks.
I looked over at my student lighting designer and, before I could speak, he said, “I’ll pull the front lights down to ten percent.” I nodded, knowing this would create a silhouette effect and hide the details in the costumes.
The group closed their eyes and said their final prayers. At the end of the day, we received our scores: 98, 99, and 100. We were the 2010 State Champions. The first comment from the judges read, “Beautiful costumes – stunning opening that set the tone for an outstanding performance.”
That experience, like so many others that happen in theater, taught us that hard work does pay off, but mistakes will also happen. When they do, don’t panic and never give up. Use your resources wisely. Look at obstacles as ways to showcase your creativity and problem solving skills.
The arts makes us better as individuals and as a collective whole. In a world where we are constantly being divided, the arts unite us, encouraging empathy and endurance.
When I think back at my father’s question, I now know the answer.
What I have done with a theater degree is the same thing Kay Hankins did, and so many other fine arts teachers do, day after day: change lives for the better.