TOWNSHEND — Students at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School are not shy about their appreciation for the theater productions that take them from creating the stage to acting out the parts in the script and everything that falls in between.
"It is the process that matters," said Ann Landenberger, who after teaching English and drama at the school for 21 years is set to retire this spring. She will continue to run the Players program to ensure a smooth transition to the next director.
On Feb. 14, Landenberger received the Heart of the Arts Award through the Vermont Principals' Association. Annually, the National Federation of High Schools awards a person from each state and those recipients then have an opportunity to win a national award.
The award "seeks to recognize those individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive heart of the arts that represent the core mission of education-based athletics" and "may be given in recognition of a specific act or for an activity of longer duration," according to the NFHS.
Landenberger has put on over 60 shows during her tenure. She also started the Summer Performing Arts Exploration program, which allows younger students the opportunity to learn about drama and create a performance. Students from Leland & Gray have gone on to modeling in New York City, producing The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, touring in shows and other gigs associated with performing arts.
"We're small and small is good because these kids get a lot of attention and nurturing," said Landenberger, whose production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" at Leland & Gray received the Moss Hart Memorial Award Recognition in 2014.
Students become "incredibly creative" while setting up stages inside Dutton Gym, said Landenberger, because they "can make something out of nothing."
"I kind of bark orders and they erect the scaffolding," she said as the set for the cabaret event was being designed for March 10 and 11 showings. "They do everything."
Touring rooms downstairs reserved for costumes and props, Landenberger wasn't struck by any one item. She said everything had a memory attached to it. She called theater "the ultimate crossroads" for learning as the environment demands creative problem solving and giving up one's ego for the betterment of the production.
Beginning to tear up, Landenberger cited the Leland & Gray program as a reason behind one of her sons deciding to go for a master's degree in fine arts. He has designed sets in off-Broadway shows.
The students' learning and growth is what has kept Landenberger's engagement over the last two decades.
"I've had kids come back and say, 'Everyone should do theater because it makes you more present in public settings,'" she said. "I had four athletes who really wanted to do something with the Players. They all auditioned and were in 'Macbeth.'"
Working with Landenberger is "fun," said Becca Williams, a junior who decided to join the Players to get a knowledge of theater arts.
"She just has so much passion," Williams told the Reformer. "It's wild."
Landenberger "definitely has a lot of energy," said Dakota Gervais.
"Her spirit is just amazing," said Gervais.
Landenberger has "a lot of experience," added seventh grader Peter Broussard.
After the cabaret, known as "Hats Off," the Players will be performing "Dracula." The group of about 40 at any given time — Landenberger refers to it as her fourth child — is responsible for directing, casting, choreography, props, lighting and anything else the productions call for.
"You get a part no matter what you sign up for," said freshman Veronica Stevens, assistant director of the upcoming cabaret show.
"It builds so much teamwork," added junior Nastia Stevens, Veronica's sister.
Her sister Nastia Stevens' first major role will be in "Dracula." The experience of playing a shy girl will be different for Nastia, an admitted extrovert. But that's part of the fun of theater: learning how others feel by acting out the emotions of a character.
"In society, you're viewed one way and that's the way you are," Nastia said. "Here, you get to become your character."
She said the old improvisational theater principle known as "Yes, And" — as it inspires more brainstorming and action — is applied to all aspects of the production. Students say assistance is offered to all departments, no matter what role or job one has taken for a given show.
Freshman Caroline Mehner considers the Players a second family. For Gervais, they're all like siblings.
"We just love each other," she said.
Principal Bob Thibault has been very supportive of the program. He's having cabinets built so the props can be moved to a better space, closer to the gym.
"He's really pro-arts," said Landenberger. "It's the same with Marty Testo [Leland & Gray's activities and athletics director]."
Testo nominated Landenberger for the award she just won.
"I just love going to her shows," Thibault told the Reformer.
Thibault started teaching at Leland & Gray at the same time Landenberger. He ended up leaving to pursue administrative positions elsewhere before returning to the school this year as principal.
Landenberger was credited with resurrecting a theater program.
"She built this from scratch," Thibault said, noting the challenges and limits of running a small school. "She'll put a show on that will knock your socks off."
Students in the program are said to build confidence and friendships, and learn skills related to collaboration.
"The kids get so much out of it," Thibault said, adding that students are Landenberger's "fiercest supporters."
At the ceremony recognizing Landenberger, senior Tino Benson said he had been provided the foundations for creating a life of fulfillment.
"She has helped me find the life that's worth living," Benson told the crowd. "And what is so unbelievably wonderful about her is that I'm not the only kid who has benefited from her seemingly infinite capacity to care. Ever since she founded the players, long before I was born, stories like mine have been unfolding. Young souls have jumped out and into the great big world with a better sense of self, a clearer idea of what they want out of life, and a passion that they want to pursue, all because of her."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.