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Drama Queen: Rebecca Jallings has built a showbiz empire at West High
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

At a signal from the teacher, the kids scurry into a circle formation. They put various appendages in, put them out, shake them all about. They hop up and down, singing, "La la la la la!"

This is not my toddler's preschool. This is Rebecca Jallings' Theater 2 class at Madison West High School.

Jallings finally brings the unbookish revelry to an end. This is just one of several upcoming finales. In June, she'll retire after 23 years leading the school's drama program and teaching film, speech and media literacy. And her final - and most elaborate - West musical, Singin' in the Rain, opens on March 1.

"Let's do two games," she says.

The first game tests the students' reflexes. When tagged by a classmate, they must instantly become toasters, bulls and bullfighters or Charlie's Angels. The second game tests their willpower. They have to refuse to smile, no matter how humorous or delightful their peers' efforts to wheedle a grin out of them.

"You guys suck at this!" Jallings calls out, her mock disgust prompting laughter from her charges.

The class is working on improvisation now, and once the games are over, they pair off. Jallings wants them to concentrate on their characters' relationships with each other. It is time to get down to business.

First, each duo needs to concoct a situation to interact in.

"No sex or drugs or peeing," Jallings warns.

The Glee strategy

Jallings - Rebecca to her students - is a hometown original. She grew up in Fitchburg, and her mother was a member of West's first freshman class.

But Jallings, 65, didn't start teaching at the school until 1990, when she was in her early 40s.

"I got divorced, and I needed to find a job because I had kids to support," she says.

Jallings ran the city rec department's Stagecoach summer theater program for 16 years and founded the Wisconsin Children's Theater, which performed at schools all over the state. They were fun gigs, but only part time, so they didn't generate the necessary income. But she loved working with high schoolers at Stagecoach.

"I find them endlessly fascinating. Just when you think you've got it figured out, one of them will do something that you never expected," Jallings says. "And they're fun. I like teenagers, so I figured if I had to make a living, I'd go to where they kept them."

She went to the UW, got her teaching license and student-taught at West.

"They were sort of between drama people at the time, so I got to direct a musical before I even taught here," she says. "I didn't tell anyone that I had never directed a musical before."

Jallings had directed and performed in plenty of plays before that, in high school and as an undergrad and grad student at the UW. Her first play was at age 14, for her 4-H group. That show was Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. Jallings' group was disqualified at the state competition.

"They thought it was an inappropriate choice for children," she explains.

No one at West noticed her lack of experience directing musicals. In fact, after the show's run (it was The Music Man, for the record), a group of parents told the principal they wanted her hired.

It would be an understatement to say the school's drama program has grown since then. In 1990, West offered one Theater 1 class and one Theater 2 class. Now there are six Theater 1 classes, two Theater 2s and a Theater 3. There's also MULTICO, a troupe composed of an ethnically diverse set of students who write and perform sketches about race, gender and sexuality.

"I think there were 40 kids in the show, and we cast pretty much everybody who auditioned," Jallings says of that first run of The Music Man. "Now we have like 185 kids auditioning for the musical, close to 100 for the play."

She credits some of the growth to strategic thinking, the kind you might see on Glee.

"From the very first year, I made it a number-one priority to get popular boys to be in theater. And wherever the popular boys are, everybody else will go," she says.

She smirks mischievously.

"I know how patriarchy works."

Lest you think she exaggerates, talk to her colleague Mike Lipp, the school's athletic director, who also started at West in 1990. He tells me about what should have been a standout year for the track team, when a group of returning senior sprinters would have given West a lock on a championship.

"Instead, three or four of those guys got involved with the theater production, and they all quit the track team," Lipp says. "They gave up a chance for a state title."

Jallings says many of the boys she recruits are burnt out on sports by their senior year.

"What I always say to them is, 'Are you going to play this in college?' Because we're having fun, and I don't expect you to give up your life to do theater here."

Truth be told, the UW had offered one of those sprinters a full ride, if he could shave just a little off his 400-meter time, Lipp says. Which makes the athlete's defection that much more remarkable.

And Lipp, while expressing his regard for Jallings, notes that she is plenty demanding in her own way.

"She has high standards, and she doesn't compromise," he says. "So kids sometimes have to leave other things to join her productions, and I get that. I don't begrudge them that."

Launching careers, ruffling feathers

Others might not be so agreeable. When I mention I'm profiling Jallings, a couple of my acquaintances' eyes get big. Although they refrain from sharing specifics, the words "polarizing figure" come up more than once. But this is not entirely surprising, given the many antiestablishment slogans on the posters that deck the walls of her classroom and office.

One friend, a former West student, says it bothered her that she'd never been cast in a school production. In her opinion, Jallings favored certain kids.

Jallings is aware she can ruffle feathers.

"There are clashes in whatever job you have," she says. "I tend to be a fairly forthright person, and that's hard for some people to connect to."

And she sympathizes with the students who audition but never make it into a show. (She regrets never getting into a main-stage show when she was a theater student at the UW.)

"There aren't that many plays with 25 people in them, so it's frustrating for the kids that we can't do those every year. And it's become like sports, in that if you've been training on your own time, you're much more likely to get onstage," she says. "So the kids who have taken voice and dance, they have a much better shot. Which I'm not happy about, but I don't really see any way around it."

Her methods have gotten results, too, in the form of students who've gone on to successful careers in the dramatic arts. Maybe most notable, right now, are a trio who studied under Jallings in the early '90s: Marc Webb, director of (500) Days of Summer and last summer's The Amazing Spider-Man and its upcoming sequel; J.D. Walsh, who wrote and directed Battleground, which streamed on Hulu last year (in one episode, a character made an offhand remark about a "Rebecca Jallings"); and actress Sarayu Rao, whose medical drama Monday Mornings premiered on TNT in February.

"Rebecca didn't see me as the obnoxious antagonist that every teacher since second grade had viewed me as. She saw me as a performer looking for a stage," Walsh says. "Without her guidance and support, my life would have been a long series of failed jobs, relationships and opportunities."

"When you're a kid who is creative and your venue is the stage or media or something like that, there aren't a lot of people saying, 'Hey, go for it,'" says Holly Walker, a teacher who has worked with Jallings for six years - and who is incidentally another one of her protégés. "They always try to steer you toward other areas. She actually says, 'Yep, you can do it.'"

A second act

Jallings has no doubt the drama program will continue to thrive when Walker takes the reins next year. And she says she is glad she's leaving.

In part that's for health reasons. Jallings has osteoarthritis as well as a degenerative disc disease, which forces her to use a motorized wheelchair to navigate West's large campus. She is also frustrated by the political problems that plague public education, and not just those particular to Wisconsin.

"Look at what President Obama said last night," she tells me the morning after the State of the Union address. "He wants to design schools so they teach math and science and engineering. And that was it! Not a word about the arts."

Even Jallings' retirement party will be in service of her craft. Parents have organized a "Help Rebecca Light Up the Stars" benefit for May 26, which will help fund a new lighting system for West's auditorium.

After that, Jallings hopes to stay sharp by directing community theater. Right now, she and Lee Waldhart are co-directing Neil Simon's Rumors for Madison Theatre Guild. It debuts at the Bartell Theatre on March 22.

And she's looking forward to sleeping in.

"I'm a theater person," she says. "We are not morning people."

But she'll miss her colleagues and especially working with Madison Teachers Inc. And most of all, she'll miss the teenagers.

"I get to teach stuff that kids like," Jallings says. "Here is the most fun thing about teaching theater: watching kids fall in love with something that I already love. That's the best part."

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