Alison O’Toole has lived in Prince Rupert for 25 years or, as the theatre teacher likes to put it, 25 musicals.
“My life is by musicals. Every fall I do a big show,” O’Toole said. “Two times they’ve been full-length plays but every other year it’s been a musical. I typed out a list. The first year was ‘The Outsiders’, the second year was ‘Oliver’. It’s by show, so this is actually my 25th year.”
Her list, of course, does not include the community musical she directed in 2010 for Prince Rupert’s centennial, or the plays she’s performed in.
Once, while directing the community production of “Fiddler on the Roof” O’Toole stopped and counted how many of the cast members were her former students. Of the 30 actors, about 17 had taken her class in high school.
“It is generations. I’m now teaching kids of kids I taught,” O’Toole said with a laugh. “Some of my former students are now teachers here and we’re colleagues. It’s an interesting community that way.”
O’Toole arrived in Prince Rupert in 1993 after earning her teaching degree in Victoria. Originally from Victoria, with a few years in Nanaimo, it wasn’t always clear what role O’Toole was meant to play in life. When she graduated from high school, she recalls feeling lost. After a year and a half of studying theatre in university, she dropped out and worked as a waitress for several years.
“I thought, ‘Maybe teaching. Definitely theatre,’” O’Toole said. So she enrolled in university again.
There was no question in her mind that she would teach high school students. She’d been in community theatre as a kid and naturally elected to study it in high school.
“I think because that’s when it clicked for me at that age, that’s why I was drawn to teaching that age group,” O’Toole said.
Her own high school theatre teacher, she recalls, had a big impact on her. When she was doing her practicums to become a teacher, she took one with him — a frantic, fanatic British man by her description — and later invited him to do workshops with her students after she landed the job in Rupert.
“He just drove you. You didn’t mess around. He said, ‘You leave your baggage at the door. We’re here to rehearse.’ Yet he was just like my confidante,” O’Toole said. “He was and still is a positive influence. I still have lessons from when I was on practicum with him that I use with my kids. There’s still a part of him that lives on.”
For someone who’s spent many years in high school on both sides of the student-teacher divide, O’Toole knows how much influence those around you can have.
“High school can be a really hard time and you’re a bit lost. [Theatre class] was like family in those tumultuous years. It’s so much about connections and relationships and that bonding experience,” she said.
“Theatre had always been a part of my life, but it was really in my Grade 12 year I was in a bad relationship with a guy who was very controlling and did a lot to my self-esteem. I was in a low place. I think I just needed something, and this was the right group of people, it was the right environment. It was ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’” she said with a laugh. “I feel like it saved my life in many ways. It gave me confidence. It made me look at that relationship and say ‘Woah, who was that person? That’s not me.’
“I think that kids can be so vulnerable in high school. Occasionally, I’ll hear maybe first hand or second hand that I’ve had a good influence on a kid,” she said. “When I hear that I totally get it. That’s probably what drove me here and keeps me here.”
She said that other teachers will occasionally comment on how a certain kid was so quiet in their class, but excelled on stage during the high school musical.
“I think sometimes teenagers get a bad rap. Just to see them in another light is great,” O’Toole said. “They’re not just kids. They’re people who have skills and capabilities. The kids just continue to amaze me.”
It’s not often that O’Toole takes a break from theatre. She listens to musical soundtracks and said from September to December the high school musical is all-consuming. Then it’s on to the spring festivals. Once she emerges from behind the scenes, it’s slo-pitch season. As a teacher, O’Toole gets a two-month summer vacation every year, which she likes to spend travelling with her husband and visiting his family on Canada’s East Coast. During those trips, she can’t help but catch a few local shows.
“There’s just something about a musical,” she said, waving her hands as she speaks. “There’s something about that energy and excitement that musicals have.”
It’s a magic O’Toole spends a lot of time creating. She starts working on her own productions in the spring, often finding a prop and saying, “Oh, that would be good for the play!” It’s a tireless effort to create an amazing experience for everyone, on and off stage.
“I’m hoping the audience can go and forget about the dishes at home or the work they have to do or whatever and just be taken away in the magic that is musical theatre … I hope they take a journey with these guys,” she said of her latest onstage production, “and it ends with some pretty good life lessons.”