After 25 years of building an acclaimed student drama program at Laguna Beach Unified School District, Mark Dressler is expected to experience another outstanding showing.
More than 150 former students, parents, friends and theatrical associates are planning to attend Dressler’s invitation-only farewell affair. The retirement party will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 31, at Tivoli Too restaurant, 777 Laguna Canyon Road. The popular drama teacher’s fans have also been asked to meet at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Green Room at Laguna Beach High School to participate in a created-on-the-spot performance; the theme depends on who shows up with what talents, said Dana LaRose, one of the party’s organizers.
Dressler was hired in 1990 as a history and English teacher and ended up teaching drama and producing more than 75 shows. He was instrumental in getting the theater at Laguna Beach High School, now known as The Artists Theatre, revamped to professional levels starting with a community bond in 2001. His students also perform at the Black Box Theater at Thurston Middle School. With an emphasis on props and sets, Dressler’s range ran from show-stopping musicals with big box-office appeal, such as this year’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” and other crowd-pleasers like “Legally Blonde” to Shakespeare and lesser known message-driven plays, such as “Urinetown.”
The party’s guest list had to be limited, said LaRose, because it could be endless. “Mark has a huge following and people love him,” LaRose said, “so we had to ratchet it down. Students are coming from all over the place.” All guests are over 21, she said. Current and underage students and their families will be going to a Park Avenue Players picnic later on, she said.
Getting the word out to 1990-era alumni, pre-emails, was difficult, said LaRose. So she created a Facebook page. “My goal was to get people I’ve never heard of,” she said. Ty Segall, a rock musician with eight solo albums since 2008, will be there along with students from as far back as 1994, she said.
“What’s going to happen with the program after Mark’s gone, we don’t know,” LaRose commented. “He single-handedly created the theater department at both schools. People are coming out of the woodwork to honor him.”
Michael Irish first took Dressler’s drama class as a sixth-grader at Thurston Middle School. Now 34, he’s working as a professional actor in New York City. “He didn’t teach me how to be an artist,” Irish said of Dressler, “he taught me that I am an artist.” Irish, who’s home for the party, has studied stage combat for six years and is now teaching “the illusion of violence” to other actors as well as acting in professional productions.
His mom, Angela, has been the “costume mistress” and seamstress since her son took Dressler’s class, she said. “Mark’s worked hard for a long time and inspired a lot of people,” she said. Having worked behind the scenes for 20 years, she hopes to continue when Dressler’s replacement is on board.
Dressler’s productions quickly became known as “good theater” and drew out-of-towners. “Compared to other local theaters,” said Cathy Bjorkman of Laguna Niguel, “everything is professional, every detail is top-rate.”
Bjorkman and Dressler have been friends since high school. She and her family went to his first show, “Grease,” in 1992. “We were hooked,” she said.
“Many people have told me that the acting was practically professional,” said Dressler. “I won’t feel I did my job really successfully until I’m sitting in the audience three or four years from now and being astounded.”
People who can’t make the party have been asked to send videos and photos to Susan Elliott Richardson, who photographed Dressler’s shows for 10 years. Richardson is compiling a montage that will be shown at the event.
No doubt the party will be fun, but Dressler is concerned about who’s going to replace him. Although he says he’s been involved, screening applications and providing questions, he hasn’t participated in the interviews. And he’s not happy about the job description’s criteria.
“Three years of experience isn’t enough for a specialized position,” he said. Several applicants with high qualifications declined the position because they would have to take a pay cut, he said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Dressler said. “If we want the best, we have to be able to pay.”
Dressler was the district’s highest paid teacher with an annual salary of $209,000, including benefits, that surpassed the pay of some district administrators. The high salary was due to working two teaching positions, one at Thurston and one at the high school.
“He’s got what’s called a 7/5ths position,” said Chris Herzfeld, the high school principal. “So he’s got more than a full-time position. Not too many people would want to do that kind of a schedule.” The district doesn’t think they can replace him with just one person, Herzfeld said, so administrators interviewed for two.
The top two candidates for the high school position declined, said Leisa Winston, the district’s human resources director, “due to personal circumstances unique to each of them.” Christina Wiggins from Vista View Middle School in Huntington Beach was hired for the position at Thurston Middle School. The district is still recruiting for the high school position.
To fill out the schedule for two teachers, the new teachers will teach English classes as well as drama, which will be helpful because student enrollment is increasing, said Herzfeld.
“Mark was pretty well tied up for every hour of his day,” he said. At 61, Dressler is taking advantage of an infrequent retirement incentive that kicks teachers retiring early into a higher pension bracket.
“We’ve got a great foundation here that Mr. Dressler spent 25 years building, it’s phenomenal, and we’re going to build from that. We’re not stepping back at all,” said Herzfeld.