All the world’s a stage at Olympian High School

Phillip Brents

Fri March 28, 2014 11:34am

Things do not always turn out the way one initially expects them, and that’s the case with Olympian High School teacher Jennifer Schaeffer.
“I don’t have a theater background but I was offered drama because no one else wanted to do it,” Schaefer recalled. “It was the greatest gift I’ve ever received.”
Schaeffer teaches freshman English and beginning/intermediate-advanced drama at OHS. She has helped transform a fledgling theater arts program at the school into a respected high school theater company. The school’s last production —“The Wizard of Oz” — closed in December to rave reviews and full houses. The school’s upcoming production of “Our Town” opens April 17 and continues through April 26.
Schaeffer graduated from Weber State with a degree in English and a minor in visual arts. However, she did not get her first teaching job until 2008 after raising a family.
“Being in the classroom was natural for me,” she said. “I felt at home.” 
Sachaeffer has built the school’s drama department from scratch. Her first class included 39 students. There were no microphones or speakers or even lights.
“We did our first production just for the English classes,” Schaeffer noted. “We had no money for sets. The kids bought their own costumes, as it was close to Halloween so it was pretty easy to find them. Each play has gotten bigger since then. Now I loan sets and costumes to other South Bay schools.”
Schaeffer presently teaches four drama classes with 35 students in each class. That comes out to about 140 students who are now involved in drama classes at the school.
“There’s a lot of gratification, absolutely,” she said when asked about how far the program has come since its inception. “A lot of its due to the productions — the kids see them and want to be in them. I try to make it one place in their day when they’re not at a desk — when they can get up and interact with other kids and do something creative.”
The OHS drama department put on five shows last year, including its first musical, “Grease.” Schaeffer pointed out the production of “Grease” was a group effort between herself, band teacher Eric Mabrey, dance teacher Michelle Morris and choir teacher Jennifer Opdahl.
“It was also our first all-school open auditions — 110 kids showed up!” Schaeffer noted.
Audience approval has swelled with increased student participation in the school’s drama classes. The first play in the school’s theater drew 50 audience members; the final show for last semester’s “The Wizard of Oz” attracted 500 theater-goers.
“The Wizard of Oz” was something the Olympian production company wanted to do for fun and was more recognizable to audiences.
“That was the most ambitious show we’ve ever done,” Schaeffer explained. “There were 13 scenes which meant 13 set changes. The crew is so important to the success of any play and their efforts were seamless. The actors took my breath away. I am so proud of these kids. After that final show of ‘Oz,’ I wanted to to cry.”
Shakespearean influences are obvious for any high school theater arts program but Schaeffer doesn’t limit herself to simply paying homage to the Bard.
After “Grease,” the Olympian drama department closed out the 2012-13 school term with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” — a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693. The play, first performed in 1953, has since become a central work in the canon of American drama.
“In the spring, I like to do shows that are of a more serious nature,” Schaeffer noted. “I wasn’t sure how it would be received but we had lots of people show up to watch.”
Family affair
Schaeffer said she views her students as an extension of her own family.
“I feel like I am still at home,” she said. “When I walk into my room at school, I have 40 kids.”
In fact, Schaeffer has involved her sons Joey and Jake, as well as her husband and her father in her productions.
Both Joey and Jacob have either acted or performed duties as part of the technical crew. Joe, her husband, has provided still photography while father Bill Swank has helped with publicity.
Both her sons have also been active in high school wrestling. Joey, who graduated from Olympian in 2012, earned a fifth-place medal at the division championship while Jake was among two state qualifiers for Otay Ranch High School this season after finishing runner-up in the section tournament.
The two brothers have actually acted on stage together. During Joey’s senior year he was Bob the Social in “The Outsiders” opposite younger brother Jake who played the lead, Ponyboy.
“Joey was my first tech kid,” Jennifer Schaeffer said. “He poured over the manuals to figure out the light and sound board.”
Jake has acted in five of his mother’s productions. He actually got his start as an eighth-grader playing the part of Bottom the weaver in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when one of the lead actors asked for a smaller part in the show at the last minute.
“He stepped in and stole the show in the famous ‘play within the play’ scene, even performing it several times at the Student Shakespeare Festival in Balboa Park,” proud mom Jennifer said.
Jake played the lead role in last spring’s production of “The Crucible” when the lead actor, who was playing the role of John Proctor, the play’s protagonist, dropped out just two weeks before opening night.  
“Jake stepped in and was able to save the play,” Jennifer noted. Jake likens theater to wrestling and vice versa.
“The spotlight is on you,” he said. “It’s up to you to pull it off yourself – all the pressure is on you to get it done.”
“Our Town”
Olympian High School Theater
1925 Magdalena Ave., Chula Vista
April, 17-18, 25-26
(619) 656-2400