Through her long career as an educator and high school principal on Vashon, Susan Hanson has given her students guided tours to magical worlds, including medieval castles, a German cabaret, a prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy and the ivied halls of Harvard Law School.
She’s done it all through the magic of theater, directing students in Broadway musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Camelot,” “Chicago,” “Legally Blonde” and many, many more — 32 in all, counting the school’s current production of “In the Heights,” set to open Friday.
Hanson is the first to admit that it is unusual for a principal to take on the additional work of directing high school shows.
“I don’t know of any other administrators who do this,” she said.
But for the energetic, 66-year-old principal, mentoring young thespians has been something that has added balance and fulfillment to her work.
“It feeds a part of my soul that being an administrator doesn’t,” she said last week, taking a short break from her duties to talk about how she has shared her love of theater with Vashon teens. “Being an administrator fed part of me that being a teacher didn’t, and being a teacher fed part of me that being an artist didn’t.”
Hanson said she has seen firsthand how the arts have nourished island teens in important ways.
“It’s amazing how theater makes young adults discover that they can do things that they never dreamed of,” she said. “And many times, I’ve seen things happen onstage that are of professional quality.”
“In the Heights,” a 2008 Tony Award-winning musical set in a Latino barrio in New York City, is a milestone for Hanson — it will be the last show she directs as Vashon High School’s principal. She’s set to retire in June, but will stay on at the school as a transition principal until February 2014.
As the curtain drops on Hanson’s time at VHS, she said she has mixed feelings.
“My head absolutely knows it is the right time and decision, but my heart still struggles,” she said.
Hanson has been an educator for more than 40 years, beginning in the late 1960s as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, when she tutored disadvantaged students who lived in Seattle housing projects. Her first jobs out of college placed her in tough schools in inner-city neighborhoods, where she established a reputation as a talented teacher. In the mid-1970s, she was granted a Fulbright Exchange Teaching Fellowship and lived and taught in Portsmouth, England, before returning to the Northwest.
She eventually moved to Vashon, where, 30 years ago, she was offered a half-time position at McMurray Middle School.
It was at McMurray that Hanson first established a drama program and began directing shows, enlisting her husband, architect Craig Hanson, to design and build sets for the shows.
Two years after her appointment at McMurray, Hanson was hired full time, but asked to split her days between McMurray and Vashon High School, where she also quickly instituted a drama program.
“There was a time when I was directing two shows a year, and Craig was designing two sets,” she said with a laugh, marveling at the energy it took to stage two elaborate musicals a year. “The big challenge was when the show at the middle school was closing and the one at the high school was opening, so I had two shows going at the same time. That just about made me crazy.”
Hanson was hired as the principal of Vashon High School in 1999, after earning a master’s degree. She asked Monte Bridges, the school district’s superintendent at the time, if she could continue to teach a theater class and direct the school’s spring musicals. He gave her the go-ahead, with the caveat that doing shows couldn’t interfere with her job as an administrator.
“That’s when I started working 12 hour days,” she said.
Over the past mid-winter break, Hanson said, she took only one day off — appropriately enough, to journey to Seattle with her husband to see a production of the Broadway show “War Horse.”
The Hansons are avid theater-goers, and it was at a 5th Avenue Theater production of “In the Heights” that she first got the urge to bring the show on Vashon. Rights to produce the show in amateur settings only became available last year, and Hanson said she leapt at the chance to do the musical at the high school.
As with the past eight shows she’s directed at VHS, she has a co-director, theater arts teacher Stephen Floyd.
Both Floyd and Hanson say they have forged a great working relationship over the years.
“It has been very fruitful and easy,” said Floyd. “Sometimes we’re like an old married couple who finishes each other’s sentences. But our working processes are also very different. Susan is interested in the big picture and overall scope of the shows. I’m very good with adding more details and layers.”
For Hanson, part of the lead up to each show is encouraging her students to delve into the world of each musical. For “In the Heights,” she explained, that has meant that students have studied the immigrant experience in the United States.
She said the students are very excited to perform the show, which is filled with songs and dances inspired by rap, salsa and other urban music.
“I’m thrilled with the passion and energy the kids have brought to the project,” she said. “They connect with it.”
And as always, she said, she has admired the way her students cheer each other along every step of the way toward bringing a show to the stage.
“That’s one thing I love about this school and the community,” she said. “The students support each other and take care of each other. Fostering risk-taking is something I have worked on, so people are willing to try something new.”
Her work ethic is also something she has shared — a testament to a love for theater that she has now passed on to hundreds of students.
“I tell them this is way too much work if you’re not having fun,” she said. “It feeds part of their souls as well.”
Students to perform ‘In the Heights’ beginning March 8
“In the Heights” will be presented the weekends of March 8 to 10, 15 to 17 and 22 to 24. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday shows are at 2 p.m. The show explores the lives and loves of a group of characters living in the Dominican-American barrio of Washington Heights in New York City. Cast members include Tanner Montague (above, right), Maya McTighe, Mara Burns, Emma Hennessey (above left), Luke Webster, Kailyn Davies, Quinn McTighe, Devan Barnes, Hailey Quakenbush, Alec Spencer and Meghan Murphy.
Tickets are on sale at the high school office and at the Vashon Bookshop. Regular evening performances are $15 for adults and $12 for students; matinees are $12 general.
This Saturday’s performance is a benefit for the junior class, with tickets at $20. The evening will include a dessert buffet and silent auction, beginning at 6:30 p.m., with items such as earrings handcrafted by Eric Heffelfinger, paintings by artists Rose Belknap, Pam Ingalls and Margaret Tylczak, garden consulting from Jill Stenn and a beach vacation getaway. Tickets are on sale at Vashon Bookshop, John L. Scott, Luna Bella and the VHS office. All proceeds will go to pay for the senior prom of 2014 and a safe graduation night party for the class.
March 16 is Rotary Night, and tickets to that show will be $20.