(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Janet McLaughlin spent over 20 years inspiring Chewelah students…
For many years Jenkins Junior Senior High School hasn’t had a theatre.
But it has certainly had a theatre program.
From the many productions the high school puts on to raucous applause, to the dance tours around area schools, to the StageTime shows that have parents falling over each other to snag a photo of their child and finally theatre students that find themselves prepared properly for the next level at universities.
At the center of all this is Janet McLaughlin, who is retiring this year after more than 20 years as Chewelah School District’s theatre teacher.
Not one to want the spotlight, but rather create the spotlight for someone else to take, McLaughlin has been a teaching force in Chewelah for decades — helping foster the artistic environment that is both unique and vibrant in a town of this size.
“I love productions,” McLaughlin said. “I love rehearsing for them. I love sitting back, watching the show and enjoying these productions.”
McLaughlin took the stage herself last Saturday at the Jenkins Junior Senior High School graduation, first making a joke about how it seemed like yesterday she too had graduated from the school. In true Janet fashion, she urged the graduates to be good citizens and kind people before singing an excerpt from “Get Together” by The Youngbloods that she also sang at her own high school reunion.
After leaving the podium, the graduates stood up and gave McLaughlin a standing ovation that has happened more than once for her productions in the Chewelah School District.
McLaughlin moved back to Chewelah in the early 1990s after her and husband Don had spent many years at the Helena Grandstreet Theatre in Montana. McLaughlin first got a job at the Children’s Garden day care while Don taught as a professor at Eastern Washington University.
“I thought maybe I could stay away from theatre but obviously I couldn’t,” McLaughlin said.
Friend Becky Washington went to then Jenkins Middle School principal Doug Asbjournsen’s office, going to bat for her friend about a possible job opportunity.
The result was a two-thirds time position teaching drama, one small closet in the backroom of the band room and groups of eager middle school students. McLaughlin embarked on over two decades of inspiring Chewelah students to shine on stage.
“My experiences in theater started in middle school when I knew nothing about it and never would have guessed I’d be involved in it for life,” current Wellpinit School principal Kris Herda said. “Now I look back at all the classes, productions, and events as some of the greatest times in my life.”
Theatre production in the middle school required constant setting up, taking down and setting up again for classes and productions. It was something that McLaughlin would get quite familiar with through the years as there was no dedicated theatre space. Creative art with limitations, however, usually results in the artists being more inspired.
McLaughlin said that through the years, the method of teaching every aspect of theatre from acting, set construction, lighting, costuming, music and everything in between wasn’t just part of the curriculum – it was necessary to just pull the productions off.
Years ago she was put on a committee to figure out just what the requirements for theatre curriculum should be in Washington schools. While they worked out things like using and projecting a voice, using facial expressions and blocking the right body movement – the knowledge she passed along to students was much more than that.
“The skills Janet taught me not only helped me be successful as an actor, but also as a professional and a well-rounded person,” Herda said. “I owe her so much and love her for everything she did for me, the Chewelah School District, and the community.”
For many students, it’s hard to pick out just one memory.
“I was with her more than my own family from fifth grade until graduation,” former student Mindy Parsons said. “Our trips to New York City, StageTime, set-ins, cast parties, dance classes and improv games are what stick out in my head. Growing up with Janet made me feel so lucky to have landed in Chewelah. My life has been shaped and molded by Janet and who knows where I would be today without her.”
McLaughlin went back to school to finish a bachelor’s degree in theatre – after having spent many years in the USO and working in community and professional theatre – and that turned into a full-time position with the district.
McLaughlin was at first apprehensive going to teach older kids since she absolutely enjoyed the middle school-aged kids. That quickly dissipated as she found groups of inspired and hard-working theatre students.
“She has a way of caring for everyone, creating a safe community, demanding your best, being a best friend and mentor, all while putting on an amazing show,” Parsons said. “I don’t know how she does it all and is that amazing mentor, that she was for me, for all her students.”
McLaughlin blurred the lines between a “school production” and a “theatre production” – something that was not lost on either the students or the audience. Long hours spent constructing sets, tackling complex scripts for shows that most high schools wouldn’t tackle, learning every inch of the craft that is required to put on a production.
“The programs she created provided me with confidence, countless opportunities for creativity, and a professional work ethic and attitude,” said former student Dana Fleming, who is now a theatre teacher in Coeur d’Alene. “Finishing my fourth year teaching, I have a little more perspective into what she did and how much work goes into creating and running a theatre program. She was the reason we all gave so much to that program. She set such a high standard.”
McLaughlin also understood that Chewelah was a small school and scheduled rehearsal for productions later in evenings so student-athletes could still participate. Some kids would participate in the state tournament and then be back on the stage a day or two afterwards.
“My favorites were the wrestlers because they didn’t care about the costumes,” McLaughlin said with a laugh. “They had to wear a singlet in their sport so they didn’t care about what they had to wear in a production.”
While musicals such as Les Miserables were her bread and butter and something she really enjoyed doing, she said she always found the dramatic shows, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Rainmaker and Of Mice and Men, as some of her favorites since she enjoyed students really researching and getting into their characters.
“When I first started in the high school I had a beginners class and an advanced class,” McLaughlin said. “I changed that and now they’re all together because the older kids can pass along what they know to the younger kids.”
McLaughlin didn’t do it alone. There was plenty of help from friends Sharon Ludwig, Cindy Hogan, Gail Churape and many, many more volunteers that dedicated their time. The thing was, everybody wanted to donate their time to help Janet out.
“My true appreciation and love for Janet didn’t sink in until I went into education myself,” Herda said. “It was at that time that I realized just how hard she worked and how much she did. The hours of extra time and dedication to all of her students, going the extra mile to help a student out, and so much more. Her passion for teaching, theater and helping others is second to none.”
The running joke at Eastern Washington University was that Chewelah was the farm system for the theatre program. Kids came in production-ready and many times scored top parts as freshmen. Since Chewelah students had to redefine “theatre space” in the cafeteria every time for a production – helping construct sets at EWU for another McLaughlin was just business as usual.
Students that didn’t go to EWU found their education was top-notch as well.
“I draw on my formal university education often, but what has proven more helpful is the education I received years ago from Janet,” Fleming wrote in a letter to the editor of The Independent. ”In my first year of studies it was evident that the education I received in StageTime and at JHS matched and often exceeded those of my peers who attended schools in larger cities.”
McLaughlin said she will continue to produce StageTime Theatre productions and said she knows a few students at the high school that can help her out. As part of the final in her theatre class, she had her students write a letter introducing themselves to new theatre teacher Sheena Rancourt. McLaughlin has all the confidence in the world in Rancourt, a former student of hers, and said she will still be around helping out with the arts in Chewelah.
And McLaughlin is excited for one thing that escaped her in the years teaching in Chewelah – a theatre – as PACA’s Chewelah Center for the Arts begins to take shape. Now when McLaughlin watches productions, it might be from an actual theatre – one that wouldn’t have been possible without her contributions to the community.