Alison O’Toole is a drama teacher at Charles Hays Secondary School and she has been bringing student plays to the Lester Centre for the past 23 years.

Alison O’Toole is a drama teacher at Charles Hays Secondary School and she has been bringing student plays to the Lester Centre for the past 23 years.

Two decades of high school plays and musicals

Not every community has a Lester Centre of the Arts for students to explore their budding artistic potential.

Not every community has a Lester Centre of the Arts for students to explore their budding artistic potential.

For the past 23 years, Charles Hays Secondary School drama teacher Alison O’Toole has been a part of the students’ foray into theatre by organizing a show every year.

When she first came, fresh from the University of Victoria, she directed “The Outsiders” as her first full-length show with the students.

The following year, she was involved in her first musical “Oliver” where she directed with a band in the orchestra pit and a big set.

She sees the Lester Centre as a place that offers support for anyone who has an idea and wants to see it through.

“Honestly, it’s like a second home to me. It has always been a welcoming place. It’s really a place that brings people together,” O’Toole said.

For the first seventeen years, the student plays were considered an extracurricular activity and volunteer hours for the teachers.

“It’s such a huge time commitment and such a learning experience for kids that I thought why aren’t they getting credit for it and why can’t they be part of my teaching assignment,” O’Toole said.

She was able to convince the school board to run the annual play as a course for students studying music and drama. In 2011, she got her wish, and the first play the high school theatre course put on was “Chicago.”

Even though it’s now a registered program at the school, O’Toole said “It’s still way more hours than any other course.”

They still rehearse after school, five to six hours on Sundays and volunteers and teachers have work parties in the evenings to build sets.

Since the theatre course was introduced, students can get a credit for helping with props, costumes, choreography, set design, acting and singing.

Over the years, O’Toole has seen students graduate and perform across Canada in Stratford, Vancouver, Toronto and even in New York City. Some students have become drama or dance teachers themselves.

For the 30th Anniversary, O’Toole has organized a medley performance — or a reunion show — of 13 students who were involved in theatre and are now grown up.

“It’s a well-utilized building. In any given year, I think there’s something for all ages and different walks of life,” O’Toole said adding that it’s one of the reasons she’s stayed in the community.