Art Almquist ’89, a theater teacher from Tucson High Magnet School, was named one of People magazine’s 2013 Teachers of the Year. For the past 17 years, Almquist has led Tucson High students in a variety of productions meant to teach them about life as much as to educate them about theater. The subjects of the plays his students have performed range from AIDS and the Holocaust to fun takes on popular musicals.
Almquist, along with his wife, actress and director Amy Almquist, stays active in the Tucson theater scene, in which he acts and performs with improvisational comedy groups. Almquist received bachelor’s degrees in English and education from Vassar, acted in several productions in Avery and Powerhouse theaters, and was part of an improvisational comedy group.
A Tucson native, Almquist received his master’s degrees in acting and performance theory and criticism from the University of Montana in Missoula.
Has your life changed at all since being named a Teacher of the Year?
It has and it hasn’t. It has to the extent that my wife and I got to go to New York and get treated like royalty for three days, which was incredible. There was something about the way we were treated by People magazine and Time Warner—they put us up in an incredible hotel—we were treated like movie stars. We got to meet these other great teachers. They gave us a luncheon—it was an awards ceremony in a lot of ways. They put together an incredible presentation on each of us and they would bring us up and talk about what we had done. We were all sobbing like little girls by the end of it.
But then, it hasn’t changed because here I am trying to squeeze in an interview between rehearsals and class and trying to get a show on. One way it definitely has changed is that I want to use these 15 minutes of fame and try doing something with it. I’d like to go to our state legislature and address them about public school funding, and anything else I can do. I’ve got to try.
What led you to become a teacher?
It started with me not being good at much of anything as a kid. My poor parents, they tried me in sports and I wasn’t good. I liked comic books, but I couldn’t draw. I liked movies but didn’t know what to do with that. My parents took me to a play at a children’s theater when I was 12 and I loved it, so they said, ‘OK, try a class there.’ All of a sudden, I found out that I liked theater and I was good at it. When I got to high school, I had an incredible teacher and she really helped shape my love of theater. I realized I wanted to do something with theater, but I also knew I didn’t really want to do the actor’s life, moving to New York or L.A.
It was a gradual process, but I found that my drama and English teachers were really helping me to find out who I was. I was really insecure and kind of a nerdy kid and they helped with that. It all kind of gelled to where I said, what if I could use theater and help other kids through the minefield of adolescence?
I got to Vassar and I majored in English and education and did a lot of theater as well. That’s kind of how it all got started.
How do you choose which plays to produce?
Teenagers are much, much smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. They can handle material that’s much more challenging than a lot of people would imagine. I believe really strongly in not just teaching them as students but also as members of the community, citizens of the world. I believe in doing material, at minimum, that is really well-written and well-crafted, but on top of that, I like to do things that challenge them and also open their eyes to things in the world.
My third year at Tucson High, we did a show called Quilt, which was a musical written about the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It’s risky for a high school to do that. But I’ve been very lucky, throughout my career, to have administrations that supported me pushing the envelope in that way.
Since then, I’ve done shows that deal with all sorts of subjects, and every time they do, I connect the show to a community group. For example, when we did Quilt, I had two people living with AIDS come in and talk to the kids. Not long after the show, one of them passed away and it really affected the kids. You could see that experience really helped shape things inside of themselves and shaped points of view.
I did a show called Radium Girls that was about young women during World War II who got radiation poisoning because they were painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint. That play, we connected to the cancer ward with one of our hospitals and also brought in the discussion of unions.
I really try to connect everything we do in a way that’s meaningful to the kids.
In what ways can students benefit from being active in a drama club?
Drama teaches the whole person in a way that no other subject can. When I’m working with a student on an improvised scene, all of a sudden, they have to trust their instincts and put themselves out there and risk total failure. When they do a scene and it works, you see the light bulb go off in their mind. There’s nothing like it.
I’ve seen kids who were painfully shy speak a line—one line on stage—and get applause from their colleagues and light up in a way you just can’t imagine.
Theater teaches compassion, because when you play a character, you have to understand the character. You really have to love this character and find a connection that you share with him or her. And it really does teach you a sense of self, because you have to look into yourself in order to play that character. You have to take what’s written on the page and find what’s in yourself and combine them, so you play that character like no one else would ever play it.
Being a theater student teaches you quick thinking, self-reliance, trusting yourself, and also getting feedback.
I do a lot of original material, where the kids create their own monologues or their own scenes. That’s an incredible opportunity for kids to recognize that their life stories have meaning and are important.
What is your favorite opening night story?
I have two. The play Quilt that we did during the school year was such a hit that we decided to revive it the following summer. We invited the playwright to come and see the show and he came. That night we opened the revival, he came up and answered questions from the audience and he was blown away by the show. He said it was one of the best productions of it he had ever seen. I still remember how the musical director and I went crazy and hugged and jumped up and down and the kids were ecstatic. It was a wonderful, wonderful night.
The other one, about 10 years ago, we did a show called And Then They Came for Me, which was about the Holocaust. We connected with a Jewish community group in town and we had about seven Holocaust survivors come in and talk to the audience on opening night. It was incredible. Just hearing these people’s stories and watching the kids as they listened to the stories—seeing how affected they were by the show—it’s one of those things that makes you say, ‘This is why I do what I do.’