By Rita Robinson
Across the now dark and empty high school quad, the song, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” wafts through the breezeway. More than 50 sweaty and chatty students are spending their Monday evening letting elbows and knees fly in an audition for Laguna Beach High School’s spring production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in the Artists’ Theatre.
“Performance matters,” actor Erika Whalen Schindele, an LBHS graduate and the show’s choreographer, tells the hopeful actors. “This is not a ballet. Get goofy. They had fun when they danced back then.”
From the sidelines, Mark Dressler, the high school’s 20-year drama teacher, reiterates the point in age-appropriate terms. “I can’t have zombies on stage.”
This will be Dressler’s third production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” and likely his last. He plans to retire at the end of the school year. His final performance will appropriately be “You Can’t Take It with You.”
Dressler knows that big productions produce big ticket sales. With about 100 students participating in “Bye Bye Birdie” on set, in the orchestra pit and behind the scenes, it will be the biggest production of Dressler’s career. He expects ticket sales to cover 80 percent of the show’s $50,000 production costs.
“The spring musical is a special event where my emphasis is to put as many kids in the show as I possibly can,” he said. “I’m much like a Broadway producer. I generate the funds that run the program by doing the show.”
With community financial support and enthusiastic volunteer backing, Dressler has transformed the drama department into one of the school’s most popular programs, has produced a coterie of graduates succeeding in show business and introduced a generation of students to live theater.
When Dressler was hired in 1990 to teach history and English at Thurston Middle School, he noticed that the high school’s theater had slipped into disrepair. “It smelled,” he recalled. “There was mold growing on the walls.” A lowered acoustic-tile ceiling masked the original ceiling, which was high enough for sound resonance and wide enough for catwalks and professional lighting. He asked administrators to amp up the performing arts curriculum and revamp the theater, and to let him teach drama.
When Dressler held the first audition for his first production, “Grease,” in 1992, not one student heeded the call. “I had to beg and then the next day three girls showed up,” he said. A friend told him about three guys in a garage band, so he asked them to act as well as play the music.
“We ran it for three nights and absolutely sold out,” he said. “The community was so hungry for high-school theater. All of a sudden there was a big interest to support this fledgling drama program.”
The interest paid off. The community pitched in $1.5 million to fix up the theater. In 2001, a voter-approved bond measure to modernize district buildings added more theater improvements, including opening up the orchestra pit.
“It just happened. It just grew,” he said. “I wanted to be an actor, but I was unsuccessful. I tell students to try something, just try it. Failures can lead to success.”
He has produced more than 75 productions and built a respected reputation for the high school’s Park Avenue Players. He teaches four periods of drama at Thurston and three at the high school, more classes than the typical teacher. And his pay reflects that. He’s the highest paid teacher in the district, with an income that tops school principals and most administrators at $208,982.56 including benefits. He plans to retire now, at 61, to take advantage of an infrequent retirement incentive that kicks teachers into a higher pension bracket.
Dressler wants to surf, golf and travel more as well as guest-produce and direct elsewhere. “I’m going to be a retired guy who enjoys his life,” he said.
Before LBHS, Dressler taught for four years at Dana Hills High School, and gave that up for some professional acting gigs. He kept afloat financially by substitute teaching in Long Beach, including filling in for a teacher who taught drama and had to take a medical leave. Dressler took her classes. His first production was an original play the class collaborated on about a student’s suicide.
As an adventure, he and his wife, Penny, were hired to teach in Turkey. He directed the drama department at the American Collegiate Institute in İzmir. After two years there, Penny got pregnant, so they headed back to the U.S. They have two sons, Max, 24, and Luke, 22.
Looking around the high school theater’s costume department earlier this week, Dressler said, “This is me; this is every show I’ve done in 20 years,” as he surveyed hundreds of costumes sewn mostly by a covey of “drama mamas” and props made by parent volunteers.
The basement remains the domain of Angela Irish, the department’s costume mistress, whose son, Michael, now 33, started acting with Dressler. He works in theater in New York. “Of course, you do what your kids do, and I got sucked into it at the high school,” said Irish, a retired Top of the World teacher. “It’s been a fun ride.”
And there have been some dips. “Urinetown,” a political satire and Broadway hit about society devolving to where people have to pay to pee, was a first-class production that was not well attended. “It’s too bad people don’t take a chance on edgier, unknown titles; there’s so many things that are so fantastic out there,” Dressler said.
Schindele, one of several Dressler students succeeding as a thespian, is now in her fourth year as Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée that got away, in South Coast Repertory’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” Her favorite memory of Dressler’s middle-school classes was going to see the magic that transpires on stage.
Other than ticket sales, financial support for the department comes from the Festival of Arts and Schoolpower, which raises funds to supplement school programs. Their support allowed Dressler to improve the productions by hiring professionals and, at times, renting sets and lighting packages.
Often referred to among students and peers as a local legend, Dressler said his successor will need to know how to produce “really big pieces of theater.”
“More importantly, it’s leading a program inspiring kids to be excellent and inspiring parents to help out and find the joy in making their kids look spectacular on stage,” he said.
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