Vanessa Lock Gelinas has just wrapped up 19 years as the theater teacher at Oakton High School, and she went out in style: She was on a New York stage last week to receive a Jimmy Award as the nation’s most inspiring high school drama teacher.
Gelinas was nominated by one of her former students, Joshua Lemons, who competed at the awards last year. She attended that performance, but being backstage — and onstage — at the Minskoff Theatre this year was “really just magical,” she says.
Teaching During the Pandemic
Before teaching Josh Lemons for four years, Gelinas taught his sister Vivian, who now studies theater at New York University. Josh’s tenure at Oakton coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted learning in all classes, but theater is an especially difficult subject to teach and learn remotely. “We came out the other side with a very different shared experience than most of my other classes that had graduated,” Gelinas says.
It required flexibility as well as a lot of online chat with other theater teachers sharing ideas. Her class ended up “basically making a movie” out of a play with vignette scenes, filmed outdoors with social distancing. “So they were still performing live theater in terms of working with each other, but the end content was a film. And they all pulled it together and we made it happen.”
‘Theater Lessons are Life Lessons’
Gelinas says the award was gratifying — “I don’t think teachers are recognized near enough, especially as of late; it seems like we’re in the crossfire of a lot of other conversations” — and especially as a teacher in the arts.
Theater teachers “put in so many outside-of-contract hours to make productions happen — the hours that you spend at Home Depot buying the lumber so you can build the sets on the weekends. It all adds up, and it’s exhausting, and it’s so fulfilling. But to have this recognition, especially at the end of my teaching career, was really — I keep saying it’s the icing on the cake, but it’s so much more than that.”
She adds, “I wish all my theater teachers could have been up there with me, because really, you don’t do it alone. You don’t do it alone at all.”
Gelinas says she knows most of her students are not going to be full-time theater professionals — and they know it too — but that “theater lessons are life lessons.” And doing theater in the middle of a pandemic was an extreme example of why that’s so: “It takes everybody to put up a show.”
Gelinas has left the classroom to start work in Oakton’s activities office, “so I’ve moved from the drama of theater to the drama of sports.” But throughout her classroom career, she says, she had plenty of support from collaborators and other teachers as well as administrators “who had my back if I chose to do a piece that was maybe a little bit different, or some might call edgy,” as well as the people she calls “my parents,” referring to the parents of students. “All of that is what it takes to be successful and have a program that works.”
And that spirit rubs off on the students, she says. “What you’re gaining is collaboration; self-confidence — you find your voice, you recognize who you are, within a community.”
That translates into the offstage world: “Whether you’re a leader who might want to go on to direct or just be a project manager — stage-managing a show and running a company? Very similar. … You have a time limit. The show goes on at 8 o’clock. So it’s those types of things that you have to have in life skills.”
‘A Wonderful Balance’
Gelinas went to South Lakes High School in Reston and Ithaca College in New York, eventually heading to Los Angeles to work in improv and TV and film. When she and her husband came back to Northern Virginia, “I really missed theater.”
That’s not a reliable living, but Gelinas, who comes from “a long line of teachers,” took a friend’s advice and started teaching theater. She hasn’t regretted the move: “I can’t imagine another career.”
She still performs, including last summer at The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and she’ll soon begin work on an independent film directed by a former student.
“It’s been a wonderful balance for me,” she says, “to still perform creatively and then come to the classroom and teach what I’ve learned on stage, but also what my kids teach me in the classroom that I take out into the world.”
Featured image courtesy The Jimmy Awards/Tricia Baron
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