Backstage: Ashland High students learn the magic in storytelling

Betsy Bishop is the theater director and producer behind Ashland High School’s outstanding theatrical productions. Plays are produced in collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which provides directors and technical assistance.
Bishop spent her early years as a professional actress. She earned a master’s degree in education from Southern Oregon University and began a long teaching career. Now, as a mother of three grown children, she continues, as a full-time teacher, to mastermind this remarkable theater program. I met with Bishop one Saturday morning on the ASH theater stage.
EH: How did your partnership with OSF begin?
BB: When I was asked to teach theater, I had small children, and I had to be home at night. You can’t have a theater program without having shows. I told the kids, “I’m going to teach the classes, but we have to think of a way that other people can do the nighttime work.” My student, Matt Smith, went down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and talked to Pat Patton (former OSF associate artistic director) and Pat Patton said, “Of course we’ll help the high school.” And that was the beginning of the partnership.
That was the beginning of my understanding that collaboration is the key. This is about the kids’ experience, and what they can learn, and encouraging them to be resourceful and creative. They are highly able to create, design and problem-solve, if you say, “You are in charge. You can do it.”
I have learned a lot about allowing people to find their passion. Theater has a great analogy to sports. It’s a communal tight community, and it’s very spiritual, emotional and vocal. It’s everything. But, they’ve got to work as a team.
EH: Why are teenagers so drawn to theater?
BB: I think it’s the magic of storytelling that’s received immediately. It’s the immediacy of being in the room, and you can sense the audience with you. It’s a powerful feeling. That’s when kids understand that each night is different. The kids can feel the energy from the house. They know they’re giving a gift to the audience, and the gift is being received and reciprocated. They get the gift back of, “Ah, they’re with me.” When you have a good night in the theater, you go away energized.
If you like theater, you have to like the culture. It’s an inclusive culture, but, it’s an eclectic culture. I like my kids to have different directors. I said, “You’ll have many different bosses in your life, some will be easy-going, and some will be tough. You need to know how to respond in every situation to different challenges.”
They say, “You never know how much you can get done, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” If you invest in other people, you get the most back. If you spread your tentacles out and ask people for help, and they are invested, and they feel that they are getting something back, then they want to be part of it.
My students are pretty spectacular, they’re pretty loving people, and you can tell that when you watch them on the stage. They’re givers. Those who are not, become more giving, even if they don’t come in the door that way. It’s all about love. It’s a passion, but it’s also about service. If you think of theater as a service, then you want to make sure it’s the best service. It is the tradition of excellence: Caring and giving, being real, and realizing that you can’t do everything, but you can do small things with great love.
To find out about Ashland High School’s impressive theatrical offerings, visit
May 16: This column has been updated to correct Pat Patton’s title at OSF.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and was a founding cast member at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Reach her at [email protected].

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