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Krista Elhai gives CHS theater one more year

This is not a story about the retirement of longtime Claremont High School Theatre Director Krista Elhai.

This story should have been about all of her accomplishments over a 36-year career in theater education, 26 in Claremont. The gargantuan fundraising effort to get the Don F. Fruechte Theatre for the Performing Arts built 10 years ago. How she is the chair of what seems like every theater group and organization in the country. The fact that she only ever missed one opening night and that was because she was giving birth to twins.

Her story includes the honor and headache of producing The Secret Garden at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. The nonprofit she founded, Thespians Go Hollywood, which fundraises for schools that don’t have thespian troupes. Or the long list of students who have found success in the theater industry and continue to be mentored by Ms. Elhai.

However, like everything else in this crazy world, Ms. Elhai’s retirement has been put off—another victim of the coronavirus chaos.

Ms. Elhai was her usual carefree and friendly self when the COURIER caught up with her this week. She emerged from her CHS office holding a reusable bag filled with old binders.

“One of my adult children said the real reason I am not retiring is because then I would have to clean this office,” she said. “There is some truth to that.”

Back in 2019 she proclaimed that this would be her last year, and she stuck with that plan even as CUSD officials announced that all Claremont schools would close for a while starting in mid March.

“We left on Friday the 13th, which I felt was kind of funny,” Ms. Elhai said.

The initial plan was for school to reopen in mid April, but as the coronavirus spread and the death toll escalated, it became clear she was not returning to a traditional classroom, or to a stage, this semester.

“Once they called the year off I was okay with it. I was really sad for the kids, but for me personally I did not need to do any more shows,” she said. “I thought it was an awkward way to go out, but I was going to live with it. I was just bitter I was going to have to learn online teaching for my last nine weeks.”

Perhaps like many of us, the unexpected time off gave her time to think. She reflected about how suddenly everything changed and what the school’s theater program would look like with a new leader in the middle of a pandemic.

“It became apparent that when we came back in the fall it was going to be very different teaching environment and that is going to be really hard for a new teacher. My second worry was that some of people in the applicant pool would be having the same thoughts for the kids they were leaving and we might have people pull out of that pool,” Ms. Elhai said.

A 1978 graduate of CHS, Ms. Elhai took four years of classes from another longtime theater teacher, Don Fruechte, the new performing art center’s namesake.

“I was really starting to think about it [returning for another year] but had not said anything to my family. And out of the blue Don Fruechte called me.” The two veteran teachers had a long conversation and she just laid it all out. He said, “Yeah I can see both sides.” But Ms. Elhai was not satisfied, “I said ‘no, I want you to tell me what to do.’”

So she tried a different approach, asking Mr. Fruechte—just between the two of them—how he would feel if next year this new person comes in and they just completely struggle and everything is a mess all because of this thing that is out of everyone’s control? “Well, I would not be very happy about that,” Mr. Fruechte said.

Ms. Elhai agreed, “Well, neither would I. So I think I made my decision,” she said.

Needless to say, Superintendent Jim Elsasser and CHS Principal Brett O’Connor were thrilled. “I think Dr. Elsasser replied to my email before my hands were off the keyboard,” Ms. Elhai said.

Ms. Elhai began teaching when she was just 23 so she has the years of service to retire but is not quite old enough to receive the full retirement benefit. As a result, she had planned all along to work one more year with CUSD in her role as a teacher on special assignment for arts integration. Now she will simply continue to lead the theater program as well.

Until this semester Ms. Elhai has never had a show under her tutelage cancelled or delayed. But the coronavirus closures torpedoed three shows, including the big annual production at Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium.

“We would be moving in this Thursday,” she said about the planned production of Beauty and the Beast at Bridges. Also getting the ax were Frozen, which was scheduled for March, Metamorphosis, which was to open May 10, the California State Thespian Festival and the annual thespian troupe 2129 banquet.

“I was thinking this morning this is the quietest spring I have had since I was in kindergarten,” Ms. Elhai quipped. “I have a wide open summer because everything I had planned through October is cancelled or has gone virtual.”

Of course it’s not all just eating bonbons poolside for the ever-industrious Ms. Elhai.

Since the entertainment industry furloughs began, a lot of talented people have been looking for a distraction, including Ms. Elhai’s friend, Jason Daunter.

After he got laid off from his job at Disney he started Projects with Jason, a three times a week live stream on YouTube featuring both theater professionals and students. He enlisted Ms. Elhai to coordinate talent for the shows that include a virtual cabaret, artists in conversation and tech table.

Ms. Elhai just finished her second three-year term on the Educational Theatre Association and about a month ago was appointed to the Educational Theatre Foundation and will continue to serve there indefinitely. She is the membership chair of the California State Thespians board and past president of the California Educational Theater Association. Lastly, she is on the College Board’s pre-AP arts committee and will write the curriculum for a brand new pre-AP program.

Next semester is going to be a challenge even for a seasoned instructor like Ms. Elhai. She noted that the three big shows at the end of the semester—the very ones that were cancelled this year—are when the seniors pass down the bulk of their combined knowledge to the underclass students.

“Now that it is apparent that we can’t do traditional shows for quite a while, what was a new theater teacher supposed to do with a bunch of theater students who can’t do shows?” Ms. Elhai asked.

She plans to apply some of the tricks she learned working on the Projects with Jason series and rearrange the schedule slightly to make it work.

“Because so many of our shows are second half of the year, I’m hoping we can move a couple things from the first semester. The county, of course, will dictate what we can and can’t do. I am hoping we can be at Bridges next year but that remains to be seen,” she said.

Life, including theater, will get back to some type of normal at some point, but the timeline is elusive and many plot twists await. However, for now at least, the director of the CHS theater will be a very familiar face. 

“So I will just go out next year doing what I have done the last two years,” Ms. Elhai said.

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