STERLING — The Sterling High School Theatre spring play is “The Miracle Worker,” centering on the real-life story of teacher Annie Sullivan and her pupil Helen Keller. The show centers on the miracle of reaching blind, deaf Helen and breaking through to connect her to the world. But there will be another “miracle worker” being celebrated as well – Sterling High School theater director Betsy Dutton, who has similarly used theater to help her students connect to the world.
After 43 years of directing theater at Sterling High School, this will be Dutton’s final show. She plans to retire at the end of this year. “The Miracle Worker” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25 in the school’s theater.
“The Miracle Worker” is Dutton’s 75th show at Sterling High School. Her first was in December of 1980 when she was a junior theater/English education student at Sterling College and directed the melodrama “Deadwood Dick: or the Game of Gold” at the high school.
“I knew early on that I wanted to teach,” Dutton said. Dutton’s Sterling College theater advisor and mentor Diane DeFranco-Kling was serving on the Sterling School Board and helped arranged for then Betsy Halloran to direct there. Halloran also went on to coach forensics at the school and directed “You Can’t Take It with You” in the spring of 1982 before joining the teaching staff full time that fall.
One of her first student actors who had leading roles in both her first two shows was Greg McGlynn, who went on to become a high school theater teacher himself. He now lives in Sterling and is teaching theater at McPherson High School.
“It had been a couple of years since we had a play in our high school and I hoped I could play a part in bringing theater back to SHS,” McGlynn reminisced. “I was nervous in my audition having never done one before and there I was on the Little Theatre stage trembling a little in front of Director Betsy Halloran.”
He continued, “I remember saying that I’d be happy in any role but secretly wanting to play the villain. I had a black top hat I’d gotten at the Worlds of Fun SHS band trip the year before, and thought it’d be a great costume piece. I was cast as the villain Black-n-Red and had a blast bringing the evil wrongdoer to the stage.
“One of my fondest memories of Betsy during those first melodrama rehearsals, was when she put a tutu on her head in silliness to test our focus on stage, a test I apparently failed, when I broke my villainous character and looked out at Betsy and asked, ‘what are you doing?’”
McGlynn recalls Dutton (then Halloran) always being great at reaching out to the shy student, encouraging them to take chances and try something new in life. “Her encouragement of this somewhat shy teenage boy 43 years ago to find the confidence to stand on a stage or try a forensic cutting has made a tremendous difference in my life. To this day I have always found myself as a teacher looking for that shy student in the hallway or my classroom to take a chance, try something new. One of my greatest joys throughout my career has been taking that lesson I learned from Betsy all those years ago and watching my own students take chances, make new discoveries, and find confidence in life.”
“When Betsy asked my son James and my daughter Kate to be in ‘The Miracle Worker’ cast, I immediately grinned with sentimental joy. I told them - ‘Guys, how cool is it that Betsy started directing theater at SHS back in 1980 with a McGlynn in the cast and now 43 years later, she will direct her last show this time with two McGlynns in her cast!”
Dutton credits much of her theatrical success over the years to three things: knowing theatrical literature, knowing her students, and being a performer/actress herself. Dutton began watching old classic movie musicals and plays as a child with her mother in Topeka. She got her first “theater” experience with directing her three sisters in backyard and family reunion productions.
She eventually got involved with local theaters such as Topeka Civic Theatre and Bathhouse Players as well as at Topeka High School. By the time she was ready for college she knew she wanted to pursue English and theater education and wanted a college where she could be actively involved right away. She chose Sterling College, primarily for the couple behind the theater program at the time, Gordon Kling and Diane DeFranco-Kling.
A voracious reader, Dutton has read thousands of play and musical scripts through the years. Before choosing a show to present at Sterling High School, she carefully considers who might be right to fill critical roles.
“I have known several school productions that were chosen because the director loved the show but if they don’t have the right students for the roles that can prove disastrous,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than seeing a high school musical production with only one or two cast members who can actually sing.”
Dutton seriously considered eight different plays for this spring before choosing “The Miracle Worker,” a show she has directed at Sterling once before and that was staged by guest director Sasha Hildebrand 11 years ago.
When it came down to it, she knew it was the right choice for who she had to work with this year.
“I chose ‘Miracle Worker’ because of the senior girls I have now. I knew that Kelsey Webb, Ella Wellman and Karissa Wilson would be strong contenders for leading roles and that junior Olivia Kilgore would be right up there, too,” Dutton said. Webb is playing Helen Keller with Wellman as her mother and Wilson as her aunt. Kilgore is playing teacher Annie Sullivan.
In addition to directing theater, Dutton has coached forensics and debate and taught Senior English and College Speech class. Her future plans are to be determined.
“I’m focused on this show, then State Forensics, then creating the senior class literary journal and finally grading. After May 23 – who knows?”
Tickets to Dutton’s last show “The Miracle Worker” are $5 for adults and $4 for students and will be available at the door before each performance.