When Renee Denney took the job as theater director at Fulton County’s Milton High School eight years ago, she had to convince school officials to make it a full-time gig. Today, under Denney’s leadership, Milton’s theater department includes three instructors who mold some 300 students into actors, some quite accomplished. Last month, Milton took home six Shuler Hensley awards for excellence in high school musicals for its production of Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” including the top actress, supporting actor, featured performer, ensemble, musical direction and orchestra. That was more than any other high school. While some of Denny’s students go on to pursue careers in theater — one recently was nominated for a Tony — she is content watching from the wings. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
Q: What makes your theater department different?
A: Fulton County has two performing arts magnets — we are not one of them. We do dramas, comedies and major musicals. But we also are the only public school in the country with a program based on Cirque du Soleil circus arts.
Q: How did you build your program during tough economic times?
A: If you produce success, students want to be a part of that. My second year here, we won region and went on to state in the Georgia High School Association one act play competition. I also started producing shows from all of my classes. Every student, no matter what level, performs on the main stage at some point. Giving every student the opportunity to feel that rush of performing in front of a live audience is what built the program.
Q: You are not funded through the school system, right?
A: The county pays for the teachers. Everything else we do, every show we produce, we pay for through student fundraising, ticket sales and patron donations. We have tons of parental support, not just financially. They are the most amazing, talented parents, which is part of why we are so successful.
Q: How big a deal was winning six Shuler Hensley awards?
A: We tend to win technical awards. This year, I wanted my students to be recognized. We won for best ensemble, which is extremely special since it recognizes all 42 students in the cast. It was awesome.
Q: What are the challenges to making a student an actor?
A: A lot of people think acting is easy, that you just get up and pretend. We train students like they are going to be professional actors, whether they are or not. We work really hard in getting them to engage their bodies to express themselves. We use all the tricks in the toolbook.
Q: Can you talk about your cirque program?
A: They kids are chosen based on their willingness to try. They spend the year training on different apparatuses. We have a variety of kids, including football players and cheerleaders. It is neat when our theater department brings in kids from other areas of the school.
Q: What do you get out of being theater director?
A: The best moment is when you are watching your students take their curtain call. They are so excited and so proud of their hard work, and the audience is giving them a standing ovation and appreciating them. That is what keeps you going.
The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at email@example.com.