Notre Dame teacher marks 40 years of musicals

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Notre Dame Regional High School drama teacher Cindy King, left, helps Lindsey Grojean, who plays Kim McAffee in the school's upcoming production of 'Bye, Bye Birdie,' with her microphone before rehearsal Wednesday, April 11. King has been teaching at the school for 40 years. (ADAM VOGLER)

Fresh out of college in 1972, Cynthia King watched Notre Dame students perform "Camelot." A young man playing King Arthur caught her eye, and she couldn't help thinking to herself how she could improve his skills. He could go far with her help. Most new teachers think that way, she said.

Forty years later, her students, co-workers and the school community are her family. King has influenced them all in ways they'll always carry with them, they say.

"Ms. King is the one who has always supported me. She gave me such a good basis and great work ethic," said former student Carly Schneider, who will soon graduate from Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., with a degree in musical theater.

King is known for her kindness, quick wit and stories about her experience with past musicals, Schneider said. Of those musicals, King has many fond memories. She's directed all of them since she began her career as an English, speech and theater teacher at Notre Dame in 1973.

Several of her students have gone on to professional careers in theater, even appearing on Broadway. She keeps in close contact with them and travels to their performances when she can. While she said she can't take credit for their success, she likes to think her work with them had some influence, she said.

"I'm probably not good at self-evaluation, but I think I am an effective teacher in the rehearsal process," King said.

For King, the most rewarding part of being a teacher is "teaching kids how to learn."

"It's not the same feeling for me to give a letter grade as it is to work with students on a project, like the musicals, and help them to see it through," she said. "Kids are so creative, so talented and so patient."

King's connection to Notre Dame began through a friendship she formed in college with a daughter of Gene Rhodes, who began Rhodes convenience stores. The Rhodes family encouraged her to take a job at the school, she said.

King thought during her early years at Notre Dame she would eventually get married and have children, as well as return to college for a master's degree in professional theater. Students over the years were aware that the return to school was something she desired and would ask why she didn't go on, she said.

These days, "I am where I am supposed to be," she said. "I chose to do this and I believe God's hand is in that."

For King, just how much her role as Notre Dame's "theater person" meant to her became especially clear four years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Worried about what effect her health could have on preparation for a performance, she asked Southeast Missouri State University professor Dennis Seyer to fill in as director and stayed away from any involvement in the year's production.

"Now I wish I hadn't done that," she said. "I missed it, and I missed out, and I couldn't wait to get back in there."

Notre Dame principal Brother David Migliorino described King as someone who "just doesn't stop."

"She gives so much, and she is beloved by so many for her work with the productions," he said.

Migliorino said King has her hands in everything related to a production, from acting to scenery to makeup. She has a way, he said, of making all students' roles important, both onstage and off.

King estimates that three-quarters of teachers currently on staff at Notre Dame were once her students. She is at home there, she said. Over the years she has interviewed for other jobs at a few schools, but nothing she was offered -- more pay, benefits or a change of scenery -- could pull her away from Notre Dame. Support over the years from parents when it comes to readying students for a production to ensuring good study habits for good grades and college plans has a lot to do with that, she said.

The atmosphere of show preparation has changed since she began her career, she said, with more mothers working outside the home and less available to sew costumes. But parents work just as hard to stay involved by helping students rehearse and helping with scenery, among other things, she said. Another change is the setting for shows, which are performed in the school's cafetorium. There is no longer conflict with sporting events since Notre Dame's school on Route K opened.

King usually has the next year's musical chosen around the time a show is wrapping in April. Preparations intensify in the fall semesters, all through the time King is preparing students for the annual fall plays, which she has also directed for 11 years. Auditions for spring musicals are held in January, and rehearsal times grow in frequency to more than two hours five times per week as April nears. On Wednesday, King arrived at the school at 7:15 a.m., taught her classes throughout the day, and headed straight to rehearsals for "Bye Bye Birdie" after school, where she stayed until after 11 p.m. But she wouldn't have it any other way, she said.

In the past 10 years especially, King said she believes she has become known just as the "theater teacher," to many people. But there is much more to her than that, she said. She loves to teach speech. Still, there is something different, or so she said she is told, when she is in rehearsals with students.

"Maybe there's a sparkle in my eye," she said.

King is being recognized for 40 years of directing musicals during this weekend's performances of "Bye Bye Birdie." The final performance begins at 7 p.m. today in Notre Dame's cafetorium. A limited number of tickets may still be available for purchase at the door and cost $10.

eragan@semissourian.com

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