Still Winning Applause After 20 Years

Twenty-year theater director Mark Dressler directs a reprise of his first show, “Grease,” in performances at the high school for the next three weekends. Photo by Jody Tiongco

Friendship, love, cliques and gangs, violence, drop-outs, haves and have nots, unintended pregnancy and booze keep fueling angst among teens and their parents regardless of the passage of time.

These subjects set to rock ’n’ roll comprise the gist of the ‘70s era musical and movie “Grease,” performed for the first time by Laguna High School students in 1993 under the direction of Mark Dressler, then a newly hired drama teacher.

Now, in marking the 20th anniversary of student actors now known as the Park Avenue Players and Dressler’s two-decade tenure, “Grease” will be performed again, beginning on Friday, Nov. 2, with a cast of current students and three graduates who over successive weeks will step in as the Teen Angel, a cameo role made famous by singer Frankie Avalon. Dressler directs the show musically arranged by Roxanna Ward and choreographed by Lisa Jay and Danielle Pigneri.

James Luby, Graham Harris and Brandon McGrady will take turns playing the winged advisor.

McGrady starred in “Oklahoma” and “Westside Story” among other LBHS productions. He graduated from New York University and now pursues a film career in Los Angeles. “If it had not been for Mr. Dressler’s showing us what a professional actor’s setting is like, I would not have been as successful as I was at NYU,” he said.

Harris, studying at USC and hoping for admission to dental school, also describes his high school drama classes as a powerful learning experience.


From left, Haley Castuera, Marlena Becker, Karina Parker and Anya Gourley.

           With the aging Artists’ Theater then under renovation, the first troupe performed “Grease” on the school’s football field. “Our 1993 production was a challenge since I didn’t really know what I was doing, did not know then how to organize people but the (community) turnout was phenomenal,” Dressler recalled.

To appreciate the current revival, it pays to look at where Dressler started: a dilapidated theater that lacked an orchestra pit with a moldy basement, a haven for vectors’ prey.

That scenario, along with skeptics wondering why kids needed to take drama in the first place, greeted Dressler when he was hired to revive a department that had drifted, in his words, out of the school’s culture. An actor, he earned a master’s degree in education after falling love with teaching drama in Long Beach and, with a young family, needing reliable income.

Clair Howell

Starting again from scratch, Dressler also founded a drama department at Thurston Middle School where his wife Penny teaches physical fitness.

He recalled that 1991-92 proved auspicious as the capital campaign launched to refurbish the theater built in 1932 ultimately raised $1.5 million.

“We are fortunate,” he said. Though district administrators do not underwrite production costs, Dressler has built up reserves to fund new shows and chooses shows with care. While ticket sales for major shows such as last year’s “The Sound of Music” have covered most production costs, Dressler stages smaller, more experimental shows that draw a smaller audience in the black box theater to provide students with diverse learning experiences. Thurston also generates fewer ticket sales but Dressler’s choices are not driven by box office, he said. “Box office is not a priority, educational experience is,” he said. “Kids need more than multiple choice tests.”

Makenna Zur Schmiede and Elias Cerdas snuggle at the drive-in.

Surrounded by an artistic community, he affirms that support has been strong from the beginning: school bonds built an orchestra pit, Schoolpower contributes to the performing arts and the Festival of Arts Foundation financially supports the entire performing arts department.

Something else has changed since ’93. Now, Dressler has to worry about more than a review of his latest show. reveals he receives mostly four out of five stars, with some griping about “playing favorites.” And he also earned the distinction of being the highest paid teacher in the county, according to a 2009 Orange County Register survey, earning $170,527. He says its due to long hours at Thurston and the high school overseeing rehearsals, lining up shows, supervising technical aspects and mentoring young actors.

“Mark is at the top of the compensation scale through long tenure, advanced degrees and willingness to work longer hours. It works better for the district to have teachers carrying heavier loads than hiring new ones,” explained Theresa O’Hare, a school board member.

Danny and The Pink Ladies, from left, Makenna Zur Schmiede, Tony Davia, Gabrielle Crivello, Anya Gourley and Haley Castuera.

For his part, Dressler credits involved parents such as Angela Irish, Kirsten Whalen and O’Hare for successes that have earned more awards than he can count.

“I don’t work in a vacuum. I have to have parents like Angela to get things done,” he said. Irish, a former fifth-grade teacher became involved when her son attended Thurston and is now the theater’s paid wardrobe mistress, surveying a cave-like basement filled to capacity with thousands of costume items.

“We all know that it’s all for the kids. They get up before 430 people and hold up their end of the bargain,” she said.

O’Hare served as a “drama mama” working behind the scenes in any needed capacity and still volunteers. She, Whalen and others founded Laguna Beach Performing Arts Boosters, a non-profit entity that also raises money for scholarships. “Performing arts are the district’s crown jewel,” she said.

Brendan McGrady croons “Beauty School Dropout” to Anya Courley, advising her to “go back to high school.”

For Kirsten and daughter Erika Whalen, a former Dressler student and now a working actress and dancer, theater yielded a mother-daughter experience.

“Mark challenges every kid in his classes. They all learn important life skills whether they act or work in production. Besides public speaking and literary analysis, they learn to cooperate and support each other,” said Mrs. Whalen.

Dressler invited Erika, who graduated in 2001, to return as a guest choreographer for several recent productions at Thurston and the high school. “I would not be doing what I do without Mark Dressler, acting in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley Repertory and at the South Coast Repertory,” said Erika, a member of Actor’s Equity Association and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Perhaps the best measure of the program’s success is the breadth of student involvement, pointed out Tad Heitmann, a current drama parent volunteer. “The experience has proven invaluable for a large portion of the student body. They learn courage, responsibility, collaboration and eventually become educated proponents and consumers of culture.”


“Grease” show times:  Nov.2, 3, 9, 10,16, 17 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 4, 11,18 at 2:30 p.m., Artists’ Theatre, 625 Park Ave. 949-487-7769 Tickets: $10, 15 & 20.


Photos by Roark Gourley

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