Luisa Sermol bids farewell with one last Willie Wonka

The Drammy-winning Portland actor and educator closes her run here with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and her students at Fowler Middle School

By LUISA SERMOL

After graduating from Juilliard and living in New York for 10 years, I came back to Portland in 1996 with my then-husband in order to start a family and be near my own. I found that there was just as much good and bad theater for me to engage in here as there was in New York. My marriage didn’t survive, although the friendship did. And we had a wonderful child. I soon realized the outreach work, precarious adjunct teaching work and periodic Equity acting work I could get here would not pay for the home that I wanted to create for my child.

I followed what I loved about the outreach work I had done with the Haven Project and Artists Repertory Theater’s Actors to Go, and I went back to school at Lewis & Clark College to get my MAT in teaching in Language Arts and Drama to become a public school teacher. I was lucky enough to do my student teaching at Tigard’s Fowler Middle School in Language Arts. Coincidentally, they had recently lost their Drama teacher: a wonderful teacher and fellow actor, Brian Haliski, had transferred to an elementary school.

Editor’s Note: We saw Luisa’s Facebook post about her time at Fowler Middle School, and she agreed to let us publish a version of it here on ArtsWatch. Luisa has been an important part of Portland’s acting community for more than 30 years, and she’s won five Best Actor Drammy Awards in the process.

In his place, a passionate art teacher, and future partner in crime, Elissa Meehan, taught the classes and directed the school play that year in order to keep the position alive while the school found a teacher. I saw them rehearsing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the “cafetorium” and offered to come in and help. The next year, I was hired as a teacher at the school for Language Arts, Social Studies and Drama, and I have been there ever since.

The cast and crew of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” at Fowler Middle School.

By June, I will have spent 13 years in the building and I’ve gone through many changes. I have taught Language Arts, Social Studies, Film, Newspaper, Creative Writing, and Drama. That is how I came to Fowler and now I leave it because it is time. I have had an eight year, long-distance relationship with my now fiancée, who is also a teacher and actor/director. My lovely child has grown up and is now away at Scripps College, so I will leave Fowler to live with my love in California.

Although I am a little young to retire, I have worked two jobs for a long time, keeping up my own acting career in addition to teaching. This next chapter in my life will allow me to act in both California and my own Oregon and to continue to encourage young actors to experience the magic of our work.

Last weekend, my final show at Fowler Middle School opened and closed. I woke up on the morning of closing for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with these thoughts:

Tonight is closing night for my final show at Fowler Middle school. After 12 years of teaching there, it makes tonight particularly poignant. I chose to do “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as the final show, not only because of the loss of the magic man Gene Wilder this year, not only because of the hubbub over a new Broadway production (a happy incidental occurrence), not only because it was the first show I ever directed there, but because it is a show about imagination, gratitude, and hope.

“On reflection, however, it is not “magic fairy dust.” It is children believing in theater, believing they can transform an audience and they commit to this.”

And I, for one, needed to be reminded of that after this past year. A week before opening I usually have a moment of hopelessness, a momentary fear that it may not come together, sometimes even a loss of faith in humanity. And every time, yes, every time, what I like to call “magic fairy dust” happens, and it all comes together in a perfect way.

Luisa Sermol and Ted Schulz in “Boleros for the Disenchanted” for which Sermol won a Best Actress Drammy Award/Photo: Russell Young

On reflection, however, it is not “magic fairy dust.” It is children believing in theater, believing they can transform an audience and they commit to this. Suddenly all their lines are there, suddenly all their costumes’ pieces are found, suddenly all the notes I gave them are clearly part of their performances onstage, suddenly the tech crew knows exactly what to do, suddenly a story is being told. Suddenly magic happens. It is children using their imagination and believing that the audience will use theirs.

This transformation gives me so much hope for the future. Looking back on the years of teaching and directing these young people, I am grateful to find children will rise to the occasion, those who sign up to help tell a story and soon realize the hard work asked of them to tell that story. I feel privileged to have seen reticent children blossom on stage, and obnoxious children focus their energies. I feel grateful for the children who explore and find their passion in theater, whether on stage or behind the scenes. I feel grateful for parents who volunteer and recognize the importance of theater in their children’s lives and for schools that recognize the power of the arts, and specifically, Theater, in all of our lives. I am grateful that we have a community that continues to make this happen for the world.

“If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it” — Willy Wonka

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