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Curtain falls for MUHS musicals director

SHANNON BOHLER, LONGTIME director of MUHS plays and musicals, demonstrates a dance move from her perch as student actor Jacob Klemmer straightens his tie in the background during rehearsal of 2014’s “Legally Blonde.” Photo courtesy Shannon Bohler

MIDDLEBURY — One of Shannon Bohler’s favorite rewards from directing Middlebury Union High School student musicals has been seeing the young actors receive accolades from the audience after the curtain has dropped.

“They’re so happy and they’re so proud; that’s the best,” she said during a recent interview.

Now it’s Bohler’s turn to take a bow.

An MUHS directing gig that began in 1997 with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” drew to a close this spring with “Madagascar.”

It’s been a blast, but Bohler is now ready to move on to other creative outlets. She’ll take with her tons of fond memories shaped by the student actors, whose playful creativity she helped mold into strong performances that won’t soon be forgotten.

Bohler wants to make sure she’s remembered favorably, and that’s part of why she’s decided to exit, stage left.

“Because of the pressure I put on myself, I was starting to feel that anxiety — which for me, turns into grumpiness,” she said. “What you never want to do is work with students when you have a bad attitude. All you’re doing is crushing their good time. They’re coming into this to have fun and work hard, and if you’re showing up grumpy half the time, that’s not good for anybody.”

Bohler’s star began to rise at Middlebury-area schools in 1994 when she accepted a job teaching English at the Patricia Hannaford Career Center. Her then-husband Steve Small was coincidentally working in the same building, as one of the driving forces behind Addison Repertory Theater, known as A.R.T.

Her prior experience in theater and dance made her a natural to head up the annual MUHS senior play, a rite of passage for 12th-graders passionate about theater, singing and/or dance.

She thoroughly enjoyed her “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” directorial debut, and then helmed student performances of “Li’l Abner” in 1999, “South Pacific” in 2000, and “Princess Bride” in 2001. Her creative footprint at MUHS would grow in 1999, when she became the school’s theater and dance teacher.

Bohler took a break from play directing in 2001. She intended for it to be a one-year hiatus — “I needed a break from everything,” she recalled — but it turned into nine, as her replacement (Pam Pezzulo) was happy to assume the role on a long-term basis.

After recharging her battery, Bohler returned to teaching and then expanded her professional horizons — first at Castleton State College, then at Middlebury College, where she became arts events manager in 2008. Her job description there recently changed to student program coordinator for the institution’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Research.

While she was no longer directing student productions, Bohler got her arts fix in other ways.

She led Castleton’s Soundings Program, which brings cultural and intellectual events to campus, including lectures, plays, films, recitals, poetry readings, performances and other activities. She became a dance instructor at Castleton and got involved with its “Arts Reach” program, which introduces area elementary school children to entertaining performances with cultural and racial diversity.

SHANNON BOHLER IS taking her final bow after a long run directing the annual senior plays and fall musicals at Middlebury Union High School.
Independent photo/John Flowers

BACK AT MUHS

But by 2010, Bohler felt the tug of the theater director’s chair.

“I would every so often say to (MUHS Activities Director) Sean (Farrell), ‘Do you need a director?’” she recalled playfully. “And one day, he said ‘Yes.’”

Bohler’s return coincided with a decision by MUHS officials to add a fall musical to the annual lineup. So Bohler was returning to an extra dose of drama, which was fine with her. Officials reasoned that every other school in the county was putting on a fall musical, which provided an extra chance to involve students in grades 9-12 in a major theater production. 

“I don’t know of any directors in the state that do two musicals a year,” she said, exhaling deeply, while stressing “there’s no way” she could’ve done it without help. She specifically cited Liz LeBeau, the school’s choir/vocal director who’s been indispensable in staging the MUHS musicals.

The first MUHS fall musical was “Grease” in 2010. It proved a particularly joyful production because Bohler’s cast included her oldest child, Chenoa — who played aspiring beautician Frenchy Facciano. Theater was indeed a family affair that year, because Chenoa also received direction from their father, as an A.R.T. student.

“It was very special, and it was hard for both of us,” Bohler said of the “Grease” experience with Chenoa.

Theater was key in getting Chenoa through high school, their mom recalled. Chenoa’s experience in stage productions has helped them empathize and connect with other people, which is now leading to a career path in social work or child psychology.

Bohler has gotten a lot of joy out of directing musicals. There are those delightful moments when a production starts to come together, when the actors nail their lines, and the butterflies of opening night.

But there are also the unscripted moments that occur during rehearsal. Bohler cited, as an example, the time the bed collapsed under the weight of multiple Von Trapp children during a run-through of “The Sound of Music.”

“Everyone totally lost it for around five minutes,” she recalled, her face lighting up with the memory. “It was out of nowhere.”

In addition to being quality entertainment, the plays and musicals have delivered a nice dose of limelight for a number of young theater devotees who don’t feel the pull to varsity sports or other extracurriculars where their peers get to shine.

“That’s the beauty of the musical: It’s theater, dance and music,” Bohler said of the varied skills students can display. “We have students who have all three of those strengths, and others who have one or two of those.” 

And Bohler has helped mold some very talented students during her years mentoring actors and dancers at MUHS. On the dance front, she’ll never forget sisters Kelsey and Roberta Sinnock.

“They had a very specific style of movement,” she said of the outstanding duo. “They used to make up dances in their living room when they were little and brought that to class.”

Kelsey passed away a few years ago, making their story even more poignant, Bohler said.

Bohler’s favorite musicals included:

• “Fiddler” with Chenoa. 

“Every student in that class could sing,” she said.

• 2016’s “Princess Bride,” in which Bohler’s youngest son Eamon assisted in a non-acting role.

“He did the tattoos on the guards — that’s all I could get him to do,” she laughed in remembering Eamon’s modest contribution.

• “High School Musical” in 2019.

“I swore up and down for years that I would never, ever do it,” she said of the popular production.

What made the “High School Musical” special for Bohler is that it was taken on by a class that had come in with a reputation of being difficult non-conformists.

“I had a little chat with them,” Bohler said. “I said, ‘I don’t give a (bleep) what other people have said to you about who you are and what’s going on. You are completely capable of doing this work and doing a great job.’”

It was coach-speak, rather than director-speak, and it worked.

“It was great,” she said of the resulting effort by her cast. “They had a really great time.”

STUDENT ACTOR WREN Colwell, getting ready for her turn in the 2019 MUHS production of “The Addams Family,” appears to enjoy getting her hair styled by director Shannon Bohler. Bohler has retired after a long run directing the annual senior plays and fall musicals at MUHS.
Photo courtesy Shannon Bohler

FINAL CURTAIN

Bohler told Farrell earlier this year that she’d be stepping down after this spring’s “Madagascar.”

Once the final curtain came down, Bohler gently broke the news to her students that she’d directed her last MUHS play.

“I’m not a crier, actually, but I cried,” she said candidly of her emotional farewell. “It was hard.”

Though disappointed, her students said, “We understand, and we will miss you,” Bohler recalled.

As of this writing, MUHS was still searching for Bohler’s successor. She hopes it’s a person who can bond with the young actors to get their talents to shine.

“If you’re interested in this position, you’d better come and love them,” Bohler said. “It’s going to be the best that you can do, and it’s going to be a good time.”

Bohler would often be asked “How do you do it?” by people who assumed that directing high school kids was akin to herding cats.

Those people got a surprising response from Bohler.

“They’re so amazing,” she said of the students. “They’re sort of walking contradictions. They know everything and know nothing. They have all the energy in the world, and they’re so tired. But when you get them to gel all their energy and potential and then they put it out on stage? Come on.”

MUHS Principal Caitlin Steele praised Bohler for her dedication to students and the theater/dance program.

“Shannon Bohler is a talented leader who is committed to creative expression and to increasing access to and joy around the performing arts,” she said. “Over the years, she has directed dozens of fall musicals and senior plays, and she has invested endless care and energy into supporting hundreds of theater students. We are so grateful to her for her many years of service as drama director at MUHS.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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