Though the theater program at R. Roger Rowe Middle School is just five years old, it has already helped hundreds of students step out of their comfort zones, tap into their confidence and creativity, and shine on stage. Both the RSF Children’s Theater, which serves children in kindergarten to fifth grade, and RSF Players, which serves those in fifth to eighth grade, are 90% student-run, encouraging them to be as involved as possible – from script writing and acting to controlling light, sound, and video during performances. And as students move forward in their drama classes over the years, they are able to experience a more collaborative theater experience by creating original characters and skits together. 92067 Magazine sat down with Drama Department Chair Heidi Moreno to learn more.
Q&A with Heidi Moreno, R. Roger Rowe School Drama Teacher and Drama Department Chair
What is the mission or focus of the drama program at R. Roger Rowe School?
The mission of the drama program at R. Roger Rowe is to give students the opportunity to increase their confidence, creativity, and reading and writing skills through a variety of theater projects and performances.
What is your role in the department?
I am the K-8 drama teacher and serve as the drama department chair. I also organize several special events at our school throughout the year, including our Shining Stars Variety Show, and our elementary and middle school assemblies.
What is your professional background and what sparked your interest in teaching?
I have been passionate about theater and performing since I was a toddler. I loved being in the spotlight as a kid, and absolutely loved to entertain others. My parents got me involved in theater, gymnastics, dance, and ice-skating when I was young and I competed or performed all over California in all four of these disciplines for over 10 years. Give me music, a routine, a monologue, and a fancy costume to go with it and I was ready to take the stage, rink, gym, or dance floor! I started teaching in 2004 at Doty Middle School in Downey, CA and it was the first time I had ever taught theater or directed plays. I was out of the stage limelight and into the teaching limelight and I loved it.
My degree is in English education and comparative literature, and my passion for teaching comes from my desire to help students be the best at the areas that they are talented in and help them thrive in those talents. With my English background, I am also passionate about making reading and writing a creative experience in which students get to produce the work that they create. Script writing, set and lighting design, and costume design are some of my many favorite things in the theater world, and when students create the stories, I love nothing more than to help them bring their stories to the stage in order to breathe life into them.
Name: Heidi Moreno
Position: K-8 Drama Teacher, 7th Grade English Teacher, RSF Children’s Theater Director, RSF Players Technical Director
Education: B.A. English Education from Cal State Long Beach; M.A. Comparative Literature from University College London, UK
Community: Rancho Bernardo
Hobbies & Interests: Camping, hiking, and going to the theater
Family: I have a wonderful husband, Tony Moreno, who takes pictures of all of our theater productions for our school and a four-year-old daughter, Madelyn, who can’t wait for her big debut on stage.
Favorite Place in 92067: My favorite place in RSF is our school! It’s just that spectacular.
What has been the most rewarding part of your role? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing students grow as performers, thinkers, and creators. When students start in any of my productions, there is a characterization process that occurs, and when the moment in their journey with their characters clicks or they truly understand the story that they are creating to audiences occur, I feel like my job is complete. The most challenging part of my job is trying to give each student the key opportunities on stage or behind the scenes that will help them the most in their journey with their craft. Oftentimes, I find myself writing in several extra roles in a play in order to give every student the opportunity to practice their craft and increase their confidence in performing on stage. It is a daunting task at times, but one that I always enjoy doing.
How has the drama program at R. Roger Rowe evolved over the years?
I started teaching at R. Roger Rowe in February of 2011, and the school had just had a huge facelift with a brand new theater that was ready to be broken in. Our former Superintendent, Lindy Delaney, hired me to start a theater program and so I began the journey of creating a K-5 elementary curriculum that wove in literacy support, science, and history into my units. I was also challenged to get middle school students involved in theater. I grew my middle school classes over the next two years from classes of 10 students into classes of 25-plus who perform in a variety of performances for the middle school throughout the year. Our theater programs now have over 100 students throughout the year filling up our stages with incredible performances. It has been a wonderful experience to be a part of and I can’t wait to see how much more we can grow our program in the future.
Please tell us more about the RSF Players. How can students get involved?
The RSF Players is a program geared for fifth to eighth graders, however, students in younger grades can try out for the plays too. I started the RSF Players in 2011 and then, after having my daughter, passed the torch to a talented San Diego actress, Beth Gallagher, who now runs the program. I assist her in our productions and manage the technical and backstage students. We have two plays a year, one non-musical in the fall and one musical in the spring. Our fall production this year was Peter Pan and our spring musical this year is Into the Woods, Jr. Any student in the fifth to eighth grade who loves to sing, dance, act, and/or perform can be a part of our productions. Rehearsals are held Tuesdays and Thursdays after school from 3 to 5 p.m.
“I’ve taken drama since kindergarten. [the teachers] always write great musicals with fun parts for all of us and give positive feedback to help teach us our roles.” – Ava Welcher, 5th grader
Can you tell us more about any recent performances?
The RSF Children’s Theater, which I direct with literacy teacher Anneliese Roberts, recently finished our production of 101 Dalmatians at R. Roger Rowe with 57 students from our school gracing the stage all in kindergarten to fifth grade. We have an upcoming production of The Little Mermaid starting on Jan. 4 and ending with our performances on March 2 and 3. Our RSF Players production of Peter Pan had an incredible cast of students ranging from fifth to eighth grade who have worked extremely well together bringing this charming tale of the Darling children exploring Neverland with Peter Pan and Captain Hook.
How many performances do you put on a year? What type of productions do you generally put on and how do you go about selecting the shows you will do?
The RSF Players puts on two productions a year and we select our productions based on what’s currently popular on Broadway and what the students are interested in doing. Miss Gallagher and I always take feedback from our players to create more interest and growth in our program. My sixth to eighth grade advanced drama program puts on several performances a year for our middle school including plays that the students have written as well as one-act plays and musicals that I have written for them.
Who designs the sets and costumes for each of the various shows put on throughout the year?
It’s a mix between students helping me design our sets and renting sets from various theater rental companies in San Diego.
Aside from performing in a production, what other roles are available to students who might wish to participate in the drama program?
My favorite part about our theater programs on campus is that they are over 90% run by students. Students on the backstage crew team run our flying pipe system, our curtains, moving set pieces, etc. and our technical theater team runs our lights, sound, and video up in the control room. All students in fourth to eighth grade can get involved with my technical and backstage crew teams, and we have 10 students ranging from fifth to eighth grade involved in our current productions. I hold Drama Club Thursdays at lunch for performers, playwrights, and technical theater students to gather together and create.
“My daughters have grown as actors and flourished into confident young adults under Mrs. Moreno’s encouragement and guidance. She continually challenges students to be the best they can be in school and on stage.” – Annette Symon
How does the drama program’s area of focus shift for students as they grow from kindergarten to eighth grade? How do classes change?
The classes over the years change from directed lessons in puppetry, script-writing, role-playing, and pantomime to more of a collaborative experience in middle school, where students are studying acting techniques, improvisation, theater history, and re-creating styles of theater on stage, as well as creating original skits and characters and studying full-length plays together as a collaborative theater group.
What are the most valuable lessons or skills you believe students gain while studying drama or the arts in general?
The most valuable lesson I believe students gain while studying theater arts is that art imitates life and art on stage is one of the most honest reflections of culture, social-issues, obstacles, and the innate desire to truly understand oneself. The only way to truly be a great actor and performer is to understand who you are and who you want to become, and I think that embedding character lessons into every role played by students or every story told helps students understand who they are and how they can be better and do better in the world around them.
Number of Productions a Year: Two for our RSF Players, two for our RSF Children’s Theater, four for Advanced Drama (elective for sixth to eighth grade students)
Average Number of Attendees at Each Production: 150
Average Number of Students Involved in Each Production: 15-20 in our RSF Players; 50-60 in our RSF Children’s Theater
How might the RSF community help support the drama program at R. Roger Rowe?
I would love for the RSF community to get more involved in our theater programs. All of our productions with our children’s theater and RSF Players are free so getting every seat in the house filled is a huge goal of our drama programs.
Do you have any favorite memories or experiences from your time at R. Roger Rowe?
One of my favorite moments at R. Roger Rowe was my first production with the RSF Players and I had one sixth grade student who was very nervous to get involved and had never been on stage before in a full-length production. She got cast as a lead in my play and was shocked at how many lines she had to learn but was committed to learning them. I worked with her three days a week after school for several weeks prior to the production and she was very nervous that she was going to let her cast down. Opening night came and she not only knew her lines, but she suddenly knew everyone else’s and rose to not only a great champion of her own nerves, but also as a leader that night before the show. After the production, her parents came up to me and said, “This is what she wants to do with her life, she wants to act.” I had never felt more proud to be her teacher, director, and coach and the play was a big hit too!
“The productions are above and beyond what you would expect from any elementary or middle school performance. Heidi loves what she does and she is amazing with the kids. She knows and truly loves them all, and her patience and ability to work with all ages is pretty special.” – Tanya Baumgardner, Sixth Grade Science Teacher at RSF School
Anything else you’d like to share? What is the department currently working on, if anything?
I would love to see more middle school students get involved in our RSF Players and am currently working with our dance teacher, Sulijah Learmont , to get more dancers involved in our spring musical. I believe that performing arts departments shouldn’t be looked at as separate entities but one strong unit of collaboration and I am hoping to collaborate more with our music, art, and dance departments in the future.