After 23 years, Deborah Thompson is ready to take her final bow in the Upper Dublin School District.
Currently serving as the theater director and teacher at the high school, Thompson, 61, marked her last production before retirement with “Shrek The Musical” April 24 to 26.
For Thompson, the decision to step down after this school year was not an easy one, but it was important to go out her own way.
“That was a very emotional, huge decision,” she said. “I’ve been in the school district directing for 23 years. So my life has been consumed with theater for 23 years. When I moved here in 1990, my children were 6 and 10, and now they’re 29 and 33. And their whole life I’ve done this in Upper Dublin.”
Thompson said she began her career in the district at Sandy Run Middle School. She was an actress and had owned a singer waiter restaurant in Florida before she made the trip north.
“I hadn’t really taught,” she said. “I had my degree, but I hadn’t really taught. I’d done some directing but I thought, ‘Alright, what am I going to do? I have two young children and I need to be available during the day after school for them — be a mom.”
While the high school didn’t need any help, she was told the middle school needed a director.
“Middle school directors are really hard to find,” she said. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ So I did it.”
Three years into the job, she said she thought about starting a theater camp for the township, which ultimately became Summer Stage, which she did for the next 10 years.
“It was a summer program for students in grades six through 12,” she said. “We did it at the old Upper Dublin High School auditorium. We started with 22 students. I directed and we brought in a musical director and used students to choreograph and do the tech. I think some of them might have been in college. In about four or five years we went to 60 students.”
Soon she got a tip about an opening to direct the show at the high school, and Thompson jumped at the chance.
“So I said, ‘Alright, I can do the middle school [show] because I’m not working days, maybe I can do both and freelance and work it out,” she said. “And I did. So 20 years ago [in April] I started directing the high school show. I did both for about two or three years. One was in March and one was in April but I did it.”
She then added a part-time waitressing job and helped assemble the Upper Dublin Players.
“Everybody kept coming to me because they’d found this person who was crazy enough and passionate enough to say ‘Let’s do it,’” she said. “And my husband [Jon] kept saying, ‘Yeah, do it. You’ve got to go do it.’ He was always so supportive.”
Directing the musical at the high school allowed Thompson to land a job as the school’s drama club adviser and eventually a full-time teaching job at the school, first as the theater teacher and then as a speech and debate teacher.
Over the years, Thompson made many lasting memories with the students she’s taught, many of whom came back to help her run the theater program.
For the final performance of “Shrek,” Thompson said she was surprised by a number of former students and colleagues who came back to wish her farewell.
“They did a montage of all the show’s I’ve done; it really freaked me out,” she said jokingly. “The first thing I thought was, ‘No wonder I’m tired.’”
Among those who came back was Melinda Tatum-Keiser, Thompson’s “other half,” who helped with a number of productions over the years, before moving with her husband to China.
“She came back to be with me and see all the other kids,” Thompson said. “It was crazy. It shocked me. I didn’t know … Usually you can’t pull things [over on me] but they did.”
Looking back, Thompson said it wasn’t just about the stage directions and lines that students were learning from her on stage.
“You just never know what kind of impact you’re making,” she said. “You just don’t know. You think you know, you try to give it your best shot, and teach them some hard core life skills, which doing theater does do. You need to be collaborative. You need to work with time management. You need to persevere. You need to have a thick skin. You need to take constructive criticism. You need to be humble. You need to have a healthy ego. And I’ve been getting a response from a lot of [former students] that that’s what they took away from the program.”
Follow Eric Devlin on Twitter @Eric_Devlin.