A Teacher's Dedication: Creating A Thespian Troupe, Making Theatre Happen & More
Jasmine Ammons Bucher educates dozens of young artists a year as the director of Palmyra Area High School’s annual musical. This year, she started a new Thespian troupe (through the Educational Theatre Association) to honor the students and their work in the theatre. She holds a BA in English, an MBA from Lebanon Valley College, and an MA in humanities from The Pennsylvania State University, and specializes in publicity, theatre board governance, and educational programming. She also happens to be my mother! We talked about her journey to theatre education, finding new ways to recognize her students through the International Thespian Society, and how her students inspire her to develop their curriculum.
Rosemary Bucher: How did you become a theatre educator?
Jasmine Bucher: Well, I’ve always been involved in theatre, and that started with my own education. I performed in local and regional productions, and through college, I worked for a production company. When you were in high school, I moved on to be the producer of the productions [at Palmyra Area High School] and became more and more interested in helping to build a sustainable organization. After you graduated and the musical director position was open, some of the students approached me to ask if I’d consider it.
Rosemary: Why do you think my classmates thought you’d be a good fit?
Jasmine: I think that the students really were looking for someone who had a quality background in both the artistic and business sides of theatre. They didn’t want to put on a show just for the sake of putting on a show—they wanted to build a program. They knew I had been an actress and that I had worked behind the scenes, they knew I had worked on the production side of things. And they could tell that the program still needed to develop sophistication and truly, an educational focus.
I’ve become very aware that Central PA has had so many theatre opportunities. I don’t think until you started working in educational theatre that I realized that’s because we don’t have it built into our classroom curriculum like other states do. For an area like this, theatre becomes a huge part of our communities. Students from young children to adults are looking for a creative outlet to learn from this. It brings awareness to new stories and resources that other communities may not have.
Rosemary: Your students were recently recognized at the Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards, the high school theatre awards in Central PA. How do competitions like this factor into your program?
Jasmine: The Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards have been a great opportunity to honor our students. We love having the chance to recognize our students for what they do. The pressure of this kind of program is something that I try to make sure they aren’t preoccupied by; I try to talk to my students [about the Apollos] at the beginning and the end of every season and very little in between. My theory really is, you work as hard as you can for every audience member, whether it’s a judge or jury, or grandma or brother, and you work as hard as you can to know your piece as well as you can. If you work to entertain your audience and learn something new along the way, and the rest will come.
This year was so successful with Grease, and it was really, truly, that experience. We said, “Let’s take a show people think they know, and show them the very best of it.” Let the recognition come if it’s going to come. And luckily, it did! Freshman Briana Gingrich won Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for playing Rizzo, and senior Garrett Curfman won Best Featured Performer in a Musical for Teen Angel. Additionally, Tori Gaffey was nominated for Best Leading Actress for playing Sandy, Lily Fields was nominated for Best Supporting Actress as Jan, and the production was nominated for Best Musical. It was wonderful to see the students get recognized for working so hard.
Rosemary: You also just started a Thespian Troupe at Palmyra. Can you tell me about what that process was like?
Jasmine: Our Thespian Troupe was started because of a suggestion from one of your colleagues at Samuel French, really to be another way to recognize our students. We love the Apollo Awards and other opportunities to honor the students, but it’s very competitive. We wanted to make sure that students who work hard on stage and backstage are recognized within our local community for the service they do. Theatre is a huge service opportunity, and the International Thespian Society really highlights that.
There are rewards for the students who work hard putting in dedicated hours, who go above and beyond and make the most of the time they spend in the theater. Thespians is a way to truly be an honor society in the way that the National Honor Society recognizes academics and Tri-M recognizes music. We realized that this truly could recognize their high achievements in theatre. We have an excellent relationship with our administration—it’s going on eight years I’ve been there, and they’re incredibly supportive. They’ve been very involved in enjoying our productions. When it came time to start the Thespian Troupe, it needed to be approved by the school board as a new honor society. We had to write a proposal outlining the criteria, how we would handle the governance, and then they had to vote on it. I didn’t have concerns because we have a good reputation, but I was honored and excited to tell our school board that we were working on a new way to recognize our students. It really shows how prestigious Thespians is.
Rosemary: What was it like putting together your first induction ceremony?
Jasmine: It was really interesting! We’d spent time looking at their points and adding them up and getting the scale together. The students, while excited, really didn’t know what all of it would mean. They knew it was an honor, but they didn’t really know to what level of sophistication they were truly being recognized. It was an opportunity to have an event that would equal the dedication they’ve had to the program. It was the first time they’ve gotten to put together an event to recognize everything they’ve done.
EdTA has wonderful suggestions for how the charter and induction ceremony should go, and we were able to build on that. We had a beautiful candle lighting ceremony. The students learned a wonderful song just for the ceremony. I went to BroadwayCon this year, and saw a great piece that Ryan Scott Oliver had written. (We’re a little obsessed with RSO. If you’re not listening to 35mm and Jasper in Deadland, I don’t know what you’re doing.) The song we worked on for the ceremony is about singing louder and harder, and acting more and kicking higher for all the things we believe in and theatre teaches us. I reached out to him, and asked if we could perform the piece as part of a new tradition. He was incredibly generous and gave us permission.
Rosemary: How do you think you’re going to work the International Thespian Society’s structure into your program?
Jasmine: EdTA provides a great scale for recording points for everything the students do, and it was very easy to take their suggestions and apply them to what the students work on. It provides ways to recognize the students’ efforts in more ways than being a lead or a stage manager—it focuses on service. For example, we have inventory that has been a challenge to manage, and we have students that have spent a lot of time creating a new inventory system for our costumes and props. That will serve us well, and our community, since we loan a lot of our costumes to high schools and community theatres in the area. A service project like that allows our students to see that theatre has an impact in the community, and that’s the type of service this point system allows us to recognize. One of the other opportunities we’re excited for is EdTA’s Halloween event, “Trick or Treat so Kids Can Eat,” to fight against hunger. One of our greatest supporters from the community is the director of the local food bank, so this is a great way to allow us to be even more community minded.
Every year we do a monologue contest, and the new Thespian Troupe gives us an opportunity outside of our spring musical to help them work on a different piece that’s all their own. It will give them the opportunity to take some individual time outside of the Palmyra community to show what they can do. I love that part of our ceremony focused on the idea that you are only as strong as your team. If you go out and do your best, it will help the whole team.
Rosemary: How do you think the program has changed since you started directing the musicals?
Jasmine: The students have always been enthusiastic—when you were in that program, you and your classmates always gave your heart and soul, and we really needed to see it grow from a program where students just came in and did to students who want to learn about various aspects of not just the productions we’re working on, but the theatre industry in general. They want to see what it might be like to find careers in the industry, and that’s not always just at the front of the stage as a performer (as you know!). That’s all around. It’s in production, it’s in publicity, it’s in so many areas that they didn’t even know existed. In the curriculum, the students work with me to identify what [they] want to learn. We guide them to the items they need experience in, but it’s become a program that’s about more than working on one production each year. It’s about extending the experience over the four years they’re here. It isn’t a one-time thing where they put on a production and go, whether the students do one production or several, but we really try to build a four-year curriculum so they can take it with them. Even if that isn’t professionally, hopefully they will go on to do theatre in their colleges or community, or just teaching their children at home someday. We want to make sure they have the tools to take theatre with them, wherever they go.
Rosemary: How does season and show selection play into your curriculum?
Jasmine: Show selection is a huge part of our curriculum. There’s a lot of different pressures that come into that. One piece is that within a four-year cycle, I really try to make sure they have a wide variety of experience. Have they done a classic piece of Broadway literature? Have they done something more modern and rock-based? Have they had the opportunity to work on children’s literature? A romantic comedy, a drama? We try to balance that out. And of course, we have the pressures of trying to sell tickets. It is a self-sustaining program. We must make sure we fill the seats to continue to put on the productions. It’s quite the balance that directors have to deal with. But first and foremost, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by other adults on our board who agree that the educational experience must come first.
Rosemary: What’s next for Palmyra?
Jasmine: This year, I’m excited to give the students a new challenge. I think it’s really hard for high schoolers to play high schoolers, and Grease really challenged them. They spent a lot of time building the world of a very different high school. Naturally, there are different challenges for different pieces. This year is going to be a year of diction, which is important to every show. Grease had its own specific kind of diction, and I’m looking to contrast that with more classical material this year.