Lakeside teacher and Island director believed in the power of art

Nearly 100 people crowded into the Blue Heron theater Sunday night to bid farewell to Mark Sheppard, a director and teacher who for years graced the theater’s small stage — and the Island — with his warmth, talent and unpretentious spirit, those who gathered said.

In testimonials that were sometimes funny and often poignant, they recalled a man so “comfortable in his own skin,” as one person put it, that he swam with his colostomy bag in full view last summer. They recalled his remarkable way with students, his immense talent as a director and his commitment to his partner, Fred Albert.

They also talked about his determination to live his life as fully as he was able, even as cancer was taking its toll. Only last week, Islander Marcy Summers told the people gathered at the Blue Heron, he said to her, “I don’t want a lot of fuss.”

Sheppard, who taught drama at Lakeside School in Seattle for the past 25 years, died from rectal cancer Wednesday night, March 26, at his home, dubbed “Tranquility Base,” overlooking Colvos Passage. He was 57.

According to Albert, his partner of 28 years, he was determined to keep teaching as long as possible, even as the cancer metastasized and became untreatable.

On Tuesday afternoon, after Sheppard had taught all day at Lakeside, his doctor met with him and Albert, said he was amazed he was still teaching and gently suggested he take the next day off, Albert said in an interview.

“He took a day off and died,” Albert said.

Deeply committed to theater, drama and arts education, he was the consummate teacher and loved his work, Albert said. Often, during his illness, he would tell Albert he didn’t want to stop teaching, even towards the end, when walking, standing, sitting and even talking grew difficult.

Only Wednesday morning, Albert said, Sheppard turned to him and said, “I’m not going back to school.’ And I said, ‘No, baby, you’re not.’”

At Sun-day’s gathering, which Albert called a celebration of his life, not a memorial service, Albert said that teaching “was Mark’s life. … School is what sustained him.”

Albert also said he was moved by the outpouring of love and support he’s received since Sheppard’s death. At Lakeside, Sheppard was in the midst of directing a play called “Anon(ymous),” a modern-day story of Othello, when he died.

Looking out at the crowd and with tears in his eyes, Albert said, “If the last four days has taught me anything, it’s that Mark was not anonymous.”

Sheppard was well-known on Vashon as an actor, director and leading supporter of Vashon Allied Arts (VAA), where he served on the board for several years. Only two months ago, he collected a number of monologues about teaching and, with Marilyn Bennett, performed a staged reading called “Teacher! Teacher!,” a fundraiser for VAA.

Over the years, he directed numerous plays for Drama Dock, including “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Inherit the Wind” and “As You Like It.” He also directed plays for the Tacoma Little Theatre, including “Oliver!” and “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Last summer, he was one of several Vashon thespians who performed a delightful rendition of “Twelfth Night” on the Village Green; Sheppard was Sir Toby Belch, the drunk.

But teaching — more than acting — was his passion, Albert said. He began his teaching career at Orting High School in 1973 and for nearly 20 years taught drama at both The Northwest School and Lakeside; in 2003, he began teaching full time at Lakeside. He also attended the Teacher Training Institute with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts and one year taught a Shakespeare for teens class at the Blue Heron.

His car sported a bumper sticker that said, “Art changes lives.”

“He was passionate about theater and education,” Albert said in an interview. “He saw it change the lives of his students. He’d talk about shy kids coming out of their shells, stand before a group and create a character, and how students learn teamwork and got to express themselves on stage.

“Some of his kids went on to professional careers, but that was never his goal. And that’s what distinguished him from other drama teachers,” Albert added. “He wanted them to grow as people, to develop an appreciation for dramatic literature and learn life skills.”

At the Blue Heron, several people stood before the small crowd and recalled the impact Sheppard had on their lives and on the Island community.

Scarlett Foster-Moss, chair of the VAA’s board of directors, said it was Sheppard “and his cherubic smile” that got her to volunteer to serve on the organization’s board. Jason Everett, VAA’s former director, looked around the theater and said, “Mark put a lot of love into this place.”

“When I think of the word ‘kind,’ I think of Mark. If anyone personified that word, Mark did,” said Elizabeth Dinan-Slack, who worked with him on the Drama Dock performance “Talking With.”

Summers, who got to know Sheppard well because he drove her daughter Clara to Lakeside for the past two years, said she was struck by his generosity of spirit. He’d never take a penny from her for the daily taxi service he provided her daughter, nor would he allow her to step in and help until the last two days of his teaching and commuting.

But with a smile, Summers said Sheppard was wrong about one thing — his dislike of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Even so, she said, she felt compelled to recite a line from “Evita,” one of the few Weber musicals Sheppard did not completely disdain.

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina. Don’t cry for me, Vashon,” Summers said. “The truth is, I never left you — all through my wild days, my mad existence. I kept my promise. Don’t keep your distance.”

And in a particularly poignant moment at the Sunday gathering, Albert told the audience that it was his birthday and that he wanted everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. He then blew out one candle on a small cake and announced — even though he acknowledged that he wasn’t supposed to — his birthday wish.

“I wish that Mark would continue to be with me in spirit, and I know he will,” Albert said.