Pine Creek High School’s theater department has changed dramatically over the past year.
Longtime award-winning theater director Carrie Barnhardt-Roberson was out after allegations that she had an inappropriate relationship with a student. She was cleared of criminal wrongdoing and reassigned as an English teacher at the school.
In her place arrived Michele Messenger, a District 20 guest teacher for the past four years, who picked up full-time drama teaching duties during the second week of the 2018-19 school year.
The atmosphere in the department was a bit unsettling, Messenger said, and though she knew an investigation was underway, she didn’t know the details. She rebranded the department Creek Theatre at Pine Creek and proceeded with caution in selecting the year’s productions, unsure which students would continue to participate and what skills they had.
“It’s an all-new theater department here. I’m rebuilding it,” said Messenger. “When you have a change of leadership like this, you have no idea what you’ve got, who’s coming back, who’s coming in.”
Students staged “Almost, Maine” in the fall, a lighthearted show of nine sketches exploring love and loss in a mythical town. It was a good way for Messenger to get to know the students and choose shows that would play to their strengths. For its annual spring musical, the department will mount the Tony Award-winning “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” from Thursday through Saturday.
“It’s super light, super funny, and there’s lots of opportunity to show off the leads,” Messenger said. “Everybody gets a big part. Everybody has a solo. The show didn’t have an ensemble, but I created an ensemble.”
Messenger wants theater to be fun for the youths, keeping in mind that they’re 14 to 18 and not necessarily all angling for a Broadway career. If they want to pursue that path, the program can be a great launching pad. But if they want to take other avenues, she wants performing to simply be an enjoyable part of life.
“I want them to have fun, to grow, to develop an enthusiasm and appreciation for theater, without it becoming so intense that it just causes them to implode on themselves,” she said. “I don’t want the pressure. I have expectations, but I want them to have multiple doors to go through in the future, rather than just one. Theater should be fun, not stressful.”