You could say that Wes Phinney has a flair for the dramatic. As the theatre arts teacher at Dalton High School, Phinney has used his experience and education in drama to not only teach students the art of acting, but to grow their self confidence. To further develop his skills and teaching methods, Phinney participated in a 3-day Broadway teachers workshop in New York City sponsored by Music Theatre International (MTI) this summer. He says the connections he made with other theatre teachers from around the world and the exposure to Broadway professionals who shared their expertise and training were inspiring and rejuvenating.
The workshop was held in the heart of the Theatre District at the rehearsal hall of the Foxwood Theatre, were the Broadway smash “Spiderman, Turn Off The Dark” is now playing. Approximately 175 theatre teachers from around the world participated in the training.
“I met colleagues from Taipei, Germany, Arizona and New Jersey at this workshop. It was great to connect with people who do the same things you do,” Phinney said. “The connections that I made are priceless. Just getting the feedback from others and exchanging war stories was invaluable,” he added. “One day we had a discussion about the show “Seussical,” and I was sharing that Dalton High had just finished that musical as our spring production last year. I told them how we built something similar to a jungle gym as our set, and everyone was very complimentary. We shared a lot of ideas. It was very rewarding to get validation that you are doing things well.”
Phinney says there were a number of sessions on audition techniques, choreography and theatre games. They even discussed ideas on lesson plans and performance tips. One session featured the costume and scenic designers for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which is currently playing on Broadway. “They shared with us how they reused materials from other Broadway shows to reduce costs through a project called the Broadway Green Alliance,” said Phinney. “It was very inspiring and encouraging because as high school teachers, we’ve been doing that for years since we have very limited budgets for productions,” added Phinney.
Later, the class attended a performance of “Peter and the Starcatcher” and Phinney found it tremendous but not a big and splashy show. It’s small and intimate, and it was wonderful to have all this behind-the-scenes information.” They also were able to exam some of the props used on the set that had been created from recycled materials. “It was really interesting to see this Proscenium arch that was created from materials from garbage bins and then painted into this beautiful creation. It was very inspiring and encouraging to hear these professionals tell us about their practice of reusing materials for set design. It is tremendously expensive to build sets from the ground up for every production.”
The group attended three other plays while in New York—“Porgy and Bess,” “War Horse,” and the musical “Once.” After the shows, the class was able to meet with the actors and staff involved with the shows for a time of questions and answers. “The absolute highlight of the trip was when the casts were told that we were we were theatre teachers, and all of them stood up and applauded us,” said Phinney. “It was absolutely overwhelming. The actors shared a little about their high school and college experiences and how much their teachers had inspired them. It was just rejuvenating and motivating.”
Phinney says one of the most unique things about theatre is its power to transform you into the show because it is live. “In “War Horse,” I found I had completely forgotten that puppets were being used on stage—you just don’t have that kind of experience with a video or on YouTube,” Phinney said. “It really inspired me to want to experiment with puppetry arts, and I hope to be able to incorporate some of the ideas I got into my class this year. “
Not only did Phinney get a host of ideas to use in his classroom and drama performances this school year, he also came home with a gift certificate towards the purchase of rental materials that he won during a trivia contest during the workshop. “I’ve already used it to purchase items for our upcoming One-Act play this year,” Phinney said. “It certainly came in handy.”
Phinney has been teaching at Dalton High for the past 5 years and has seen interest in the theatre program grow. Prior to teaching, Phinney was the managing director at Artistic Civic Theatre. He attended Auburn University as a theatre performance major before graduating with a degree in political science. Phinney says that drama education is important for students because it builds their self-confidence. “Over the last 5 years, I’ve seen that with my kids,” Phinney said. “Students who might be shy or struggle with getting up in front of a group can really benefit from getting on stage and getting positive feedback from an audience. These kids just come alive and it helps them grow.”
Last year, Phinney gave his students “Parade” by Leo Frank to perform for One-Act Play competition. He says the kids were hesitant because it is a very serious, dramatic show and they felt it was beyond their abilities. But with his encouragement and their hard work, the cast won first place at region competition. He says by the time they began working on the spring musical, he could see the growth in his students’ confidence. “It was marvelous to watch because they knew they could do it—and the show was wonderful,” said Phinney.
Phinney says he has taught a number of students who have went on to pursue theatre or the dance in college. He says Katie Beth Jewel is at Samford University majoring in theatre; Lizzie Baker is working on a dance major at Shenandoah University; and Gracie Bramlett is a theatre education major at the University of West Georgia. “Greg McCurry is a great performer and musician, and is attending Georgia State University this fall and is in their marching band. I have worked with Greg for the last four years here at Dalton High and he has great talent,” Phinney adds. He predicts Josh Parrott, another 2012 graduate of Dalton High, will be doing something in theatre, and he is attending Elon University, where his older brother Todd, another theatre student of Phinney’s, just graduated.
And of course his daughter Emma, a senior at Dalton High this year, would like to pursue a career in musical theatre. “I say I’m “terri-proud” of her—which means I’m terrified and proud at the same time,” said Phinney. “I’m very proud of my daughter’s talents and accomplishments, but terrified that she wants to pursue such a relatively unstable career. But I always knew one of my three daughters would pursue theatre.” I guess you could say that acting is in their blood.