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Curtain call for Krista Elhai

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

After 37 years of teaching, during which she oversaw countless high school productions, earned a space in the National Educational Theater Association Hall of Fame, and even abandoned an attempt at retirement last year, Claremont High School alumna and theatre director Krista Elhai is finally (and actually) lowering the curtain on her educational career.

Speaking with the COURIER via phone, Ms. Elhai elaborated about how she was ready to call it quits and retire last year, formally submitting all of her retirement paperwork and even having a successor in mind.

However, as March came and students were still not in school due to COVID-19, the director said she grew anxious. Not because CHS’s final three productions had been canceled, but because the learning experience was stripped away for both new and veteran actors.

“I was concerned…the pass-down knowledge between the kids, and a lot of the experience of those three last big shows was lost,” she said.

Though she was willing to let that bad experience go, as her retirement was practically set in stone, Ms. Elhai said CHS Principal, Brett O’Connor and former Superintendent Dr. Jim Elsasser began persuading her to stay for one more year.

“They started to text me about April just to say ‘Hey, this is a terrible way to end the year. You know? What about one more year?’” she explained. “I really wasn't that interested in it.”

“Then as we got further to the end of the school year and realized that we were not going to go back…my big fear was the new teacher would be stepping into just a mess,” Ms. Elhai added, assuming they would be back on campus in the fall of 2020.

She ended up making a deal to stay on for a final year at CHS. However, she only agreed to the terms on the condition that neither Mr. O’Connor nor Mr. Elsasser ask her to stay for another year after that. She laughed as she said it was a fair deal.

After Ms. Elhai explained her retirement decision, we turned back the clock a bit and spoke about how she initially got into teaching and theater.

Reminiscing on how she fell in love with theater, she said her first taste of the stage was during her childhood as a ballet dancer, which she began at age five and pursued it until she was about 15.

However, when Ms. Elhai reached the ninth grade, she became interested in theater production. Her parents enrolled her into summer school at CHS, but at the time, the teenager had no idea which classes to take. Though it seemed that her parents chose the class for her, that decision paved the career path Ms. Elhai would walk for years to come.

“Well, there was a musical theater class offered. And so my parents were like, ‘you can be in the musical theater class. You could dance in the chorus or you could do costumes.’” she said.

“So I signed up and I did the summer show…which was the summer of ’74 I think,” she said. “[I] really enjoyed it and I did every single show from then until the time I graduated four years later. So I was really involved with theater.”

During her time at Claremont High School, until she graduated in 1978, Ms. Elhai’s passion for theater only deepened. Although Ms. Elhai put her theater life aside when she entered college and began studying pre-law, that program did not last long. She began to realize theater was her true calling.

She said she missed theater so much that she eventually switched majors to theater education after discussing the issue with her father. She then transferred to one of the best schools in the country for theater education, Winona State University in Minnesota.

“I was not really interested in pursuing an acting career, that was not my thing. I just liked everything else,” she said. “Then I came back to California because it was freezing in Minnesota and I taught out at Hemet High School for 10 years.” Ms. Elhai laughed trying to remember when that first job had been, saying “whatever 37 years ago is.”

Ms. Elhai then applied at her alma mater when she learned that former theater director, Don Fruechte, had retired. She got the job in September of 1993, and for 27 years she remained at CHS.

Though only one of the three theater teachers at CHS, Ms. Elhai said she was the only one who was full time, and was also the go-to person anyone could call if they had questions about theater.

Over her time at CHS, Ms. Elhai oversaw hundreds of musicals, plays and productions. She shared that while there have been shows she would rather never speak about again, there have been a few that have gone on to receive high praise.

Three productions over the years, including a 2021 production titled “Distance Learning,” have been included in the International Thespian Festival. The 2021 production will be performed later in June at the Virtual ITF, and the previous two shows that made it to ITF’s main stage were “The Secret Garden” in 2007 and the musical “Starmites” in 2011.

“Those were certainly times that I felt like it took the entire village to get everything working,” she said.

The most recent show, “Distance Learning,” written by Carey Crim and directed by J. Jason Daunter, is described by Ms. Elhai as “taken right out of today’s headlines,” implementing both social justice and virtual education themes. The story involves a group of kids who meet consistently with their English teacher until one of the students is arrested for attending a Black Lives Matter rally. According to Ms. Elhai, “Distance Learning” was named one of the top six productions in the country for this year’s ITF.

“It was fully remote, some members of the cast have never met each other ‘til this day in-person. It was a pleasant surprise!” she said. “It really interweaves what’s happening and what was happening with social justice issues, Black Lives Matter and how that affected the students and their parents.”

Looking back on some of her favorite shows, a common theme kept emerging as she had her cast learn new skills.

“We did a production of 42nd Street…we do our big show, the last one of the year at Bridges Auditorium…It was a cast of 75 and they all learned how to tap dance for the show,” she said. “We have flown Peter Pan in that theater. All of my kids were trained by a professional rigging company on safely flying the characters.”

Aside from overseeing many stellar and modern productions during her tenure, Ms. Elhai received numerous accolades including a slot in the California Thespian Hall of Fame and, in 2008, was named the California Educational Theater Association Teacher of the Year. In 2011, she won the Claremont Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year award; the same year she celebrated her identical twins graduating from high school.

Although Ms. Elhai has been both a teacher and student at CHS, she said the theater experience at the high school has really not changed very much. In fact she said she could name more ways that theater has not changed rather than has changed.

“I think it’s the broad offerings that there [are now at CHS] that offers something for everybody,” she said. “It just depends what your interest is.”

“I think how it’s changed is we really attract a lot of kids that do theater from all across the campus,” she said, adding that the department has now grown to over 500 students who sign up each year for shows including musicals, comedies and every genre in between.

Though she has noticed some changes over the years, including students’ increased use of cell phones and technology, she also said that students’ and families’ attitudes toward social justice theater have become more accepting.

“Audiences and families are a lot more tolerant of social justice theater and content that’s a lot more relevant to teenagers than in the ’80s,” she said. “I mean the ’80s, if it was something really contemporary, it was usually inappropriate for a high school to do just because of the way it was written.”

One factor that has remained constant in the worlds of both theater and teaching has been the teenagers’ high energy and goofy antics, she explained. Asked to recall some of the funniest times of her career, Ms. Elhai could not narrow it down a single moment as she said every day the kids give her something new to laugh about.

“I still love kids! I mean last year was great kids, this year was great kids, 25 years ago it was great kids,” she said. “They make me look forward to being there.”

As she prepares to drop the curtain on her 37-year career, Ms. Elhai said that she will miss working with the teenagers and seeing their enthusiasm for the world of theater.

“The kids that have never done theater in their life…seeing how much they really enjoy it and how much they change as a person. Some of them develop into amazing leaders, some of them become incredible designers, some of them just become more comfortable humans in their own skin,” she explained.

Even though it’s a curtain call for her teaching career, Ms. Elhai said she still has future plans when in theater.

“I was just recently elected incoming vice president, president of the Educational Theater Association, which is a national association of educators,” she explained. “So I will be doing that roughly for the next five years. And I’m on several theater boards in California…and I’m really excited to see my own grown kids’ shows. Sometimes my job got in the way of seeing their shows.”

Though CHS is losing both a valued member and a theater legend, Ms. Elhai said a new theater teacher has already been picked to replace her and is “pending board approval.” While she did not give up her successor’s name, she seemed very excited to say her replacement used to be one of her former students at CHS.

Ms. Elhai’s official retirement is scheduled for this September, however, her successor will begin working before she leaves.

Offering some advice to upcoming theater teachers, including the one in line for her job, Ms. Elhai said to always pay attention to and try to balance work and personal life at the end of each day.

“It is theater…it is not brain surgery. You can walk away and come back to it the next day and figure it out,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

Before Ms. Elhai’s time at CHS officially comes to an end, she will still oversee the production of both of CHS’s upcoming plays, “Shrek the Musical Jr.” and “Life From A Distance.”

For information on the shows and to buy tickets, visit CHS’s Theater Department site. Admission for each performance will be $10,  and proceeds from the shows will go to the CHS Theatre Department to “pay all the bills,” as Ms. Elhai puts it

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