Neena Kelfstrom seems as comfortable onstage at The Runnels School as she would be at home, and that’s what she intends for her students in the drama program, which she runs for the junior and senior high schools at Runnels.
For her, it’s not just plays they’re playing at — it’s practice for life.
“If you have a message to get across, and you can’t communicate it well, if you can’t adapt the message to the audience, you’re at a disadvantage to those who can,” she said.
Kelfstrom’s students put on a production of an hourlong adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in the 1960s, and when she said they put it on, she means it.
“I have a student stage manager, I have student technicians running the lights and the mics. They do it all, and they take on a lot of responsibility. I don’t have to harass them to learn their lines — they want it to be good,” she said. “We have some natural talent, and some students who don’t want to do this for a living, they just think it’s fun. They want to put on a good show.”
She gives a large part of the credit to Cristin Ponjuan, who teaches drama to elementary students — all students at Runnels take their first drama class in first grade.
“It’s a lot of fun with the younger kids. They haven’t forgotten how to play,” she said, adding that while she’s got them — students can choose to branch out into other performing arts like music or dance, eventually — she tries her best to get them past the jitters that often come with being onstage.
“I remember having one student who was perfect, having fun, for every practice, but the minute he was in front of an audience, he froze. We talked about it after, and I explained that those were his friends and his family in the audience, his teachers, and everybody was there to support him,” she said.
A light bulb went off, and by the next show, he was over it.
“He’ll never have the same fears about being in front of people,” she said, and that’s the magic of what the Runnels theater program does, she said.
There’s no better training ground for communication than the stage, given the right conditions.
“It has to be a safe, supportive environment, otherwise it won’t work for everyone,” Kelfstrom said, and that’s what she’s determined to provide.
Their latest production was an hourlong adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in the 1960s, but using the original Shakespearean language. “I want to brag on them, because they only had 15 rehearsals for this show,” she said. “That’s not a long time, especially when you’re memorizing those passages, and we wanted to make sure they understood the meaning of what they were saying,” she said. “It really makes a difference. The costumes made it fun, obviously, but they worked hard,” she said.
They get through it so well partly because they’re old hands at being onstage by the time they reach high school, she said, and partly because they are a team.
“They’re like family. They support each other,” she said. “In fact, the whole school, parents, other teachers and especially our administration, they’re all very supportive. I feel spoiled, really. It seems like all I have to do when I need something is ask.”
That includes financial support, cooperation from coaches to rehearse when one of the actors is also an athlete and props. They borrowed a family pet, Mugs the pug, to act the part of Moonshine’s dog.
“They made the sets, they ran the show behind the scenes — there are a lot of students coming out of this program who could reasonably make a living at it,” she said.
But Kelfstrom and Ponjuan know the vast majority of students likely will not pursue a theater career, or acting, or stage managing.
But they will take other lessons with them. “Believe it or not, when I started drama, I was shy,” Kelfstrom said. “I had a supportive teacher who helped me get over that.”
And Ponjuan said she was all about pleasing people before the theater. “I wasn’t able to say what I wanted, but learning this craft helped me trust myself,” she said. It changed her life, and that’s what they hope most students take away from the stage.