Step aside Bette Midler and Kevin Klein: The Tony Award for education goes to Hood River Valley teacher Rachel Harry.
After 30 years teaching drama, Harry was presented with the Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education at the awards ceremony in New York City this month. It’s a recognition of Harry’s teaching tactics, her dedication to students, and the unique program she’s built at HRVHS, which introduces students to fairly high level creative practice.
It starts with an intro-level drama class that goes beyond reading lines.
“It’s all movement,” Harry said. “They’re freshman, and they can’t sit still anyhow, so they get mime, they get classical mime, they get stage combat, dance. And they build storytelling skills, because that’s paramount.”
Mid-level classes move on to modern acting, improv and a student-run one-act festival, where students cast and direct their own plays, then perform them in the round. By the upper grades, Harry is showing her students work by performance artists like Marina Abramovic and doing final projects with a heavy dose of social practice.
On the day we visited Harry’s class, students were performing projects meant to show — not tell — their classmates about life lessons they’d learned.
Student Sara Zeman gathered her classmates around a life-size paper cutout in the shape of her body. She handed each student a balloon, labeled with their own name and covered with scraps of homework and old tests.
“We’re going to do a puzzle,” Zeman began. “All these pieces on the outside of the balloons, as you can see, they’re my old tests and homework and stuff.”
As a team, the class started filling in the human shape with the old papers and Zeman went on: “This is a person made out of test scores and paper and schoolwork. And this isn’t who you are. In all of your balloons, there are lots of little pieces of paper, and they all have words significant to who you actually are, or, what I perceive of you. And we’re going to stick them all over this with heart stickers.”
The class let out a collective “ahhh.”
Other final projects asked classmates to yell debate club speeches at each other or watch a baking demonstration. One guy brought in two seemingly identical pairs of metallic gold high tops, then delivered a monologue on why one cost $25 on Amazon, and other was a $700 Air Jordan masterpiece.
When Rachel Harry was first hired at Hood River Valley High School, there was no performance art happening in the theater department. In fact, there wasn’t much of a theater department at all.
“There was just a freshman drama class offered as an English elective,” Harry said. “And I taught that English elective one semester, and at the end of the semester, the kids said, ‘Can we take it again?’ I said ‘Yes, but we have to keep moving forward.’”
Harry built the program up to the multi-level department it is today in part, she says, to legitimize theater as an art form.
“I also did it because if I get them as freshmen, and they stay with me until they’re seniors, I get to really know these kids,” Harry explained. “And I love that.”
The students love it, too.
Nicolas Molina took his first theater class as a freshman after a few hard years in middle school — his dad had passed away before he started sixth grade.
“So middle school wasn’t a fun time, and I was going through a rough patch,” Molina said. “But I did theater freshman year because I was like, ‘It’s arts stuff, and I know that the theater’s really inclusive of everything.’ And Krum just kind of helped me out of a lot of dark times in my life.”
Not everyone in the department wants to be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda. Genesis Quezada never thought of herself as a theater kid, but she signed up for Harry’s class, despite being totally afraid of performing.
“I mean, I was a shy kid,” Quezada said. “So anything, even just going onstage and performing the dumbest skits, was terrifying for me.”
But Harry’s class, she said, changed things. “She was just like, ‘Nope, you gotta do your thing here,’ and it really helped me be more confident and outgoing this year.”
Harry’s shows demand complex stagings and sets, and they address themes that some high schools — professional theaters, too — might shy away from. This winter, the department staged a relatively new play called “She Kills Monsters.” It’s a cycle of discovery, as a girl goes through her late sister’s “Dungeons and Dragons” notebook, uncovering secrets of sexual identity and more. On top of the drama, the play included elaborate costumes, music, and a four-minute, highly choreographed sword fight scenes.
Harry said that she’s just producing the shows she wants to see.
“I cannot do a play that doesn’t light a fire under me,” she said. “Someone asked me once, ‘How do you make your selections?’ And I knew they were going with, ‘Are you doing this because you feel like it’s important for the kids?’ And that’s in there. But the bottom line is, do I really want to do this play? Because I’m an artist — they’re artists — this is how I express myself.”
And she knows her students can keep up.
The Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education comes with a cash prize of $10,000. Harry said she’ll use it to help Hood River Valley High School establish a costume library. If other schools have access to the garb and gear needed to produce “She Kills Monsters,” Harry hopes there’s a better chance they’ll try staging such complex plays themselves.