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Viking Drama History
by Jim Neal, Founding Director

and now back to the beginning...

In 1978, the first pay for extra curricular drama, How to Succeed in Business. . .

A new school, expanded theatre facilities, state and national recognition for cutting edge drama program, 1999.

2006-Now retired, here celebrating the opening of his beloved Genesee Theatre, Mr. Neal remembers fondly his years at Viking.

Preface: The following history is here as a beacon. It is meant to show that a theatre program can be chiseled out, gain acceptance and build into a celebration of young adolescent growth. The struggles are not easy. The obstacles, at times, seem overwhelming. But the effect of theatre on learning and the benefits to middle school students cannot be underestimated. The Road not traveled is often a little rough. Please excuse those bumps included. The story of the journey wouldn't be the same without them.

The Viking Drama Club is 34 years old. It seems like only yesterday that the group of students I was working with came together and formed the club. I was their substitute and had taken over for a teacher who was on maternity leave. We decided to take the small drama offerings and make them into something larger. Our first show, The Ugly Duckling, a one-act comedy by A.A. Milne, was produced with the help of a loan from the Student Council. Our Principal, Verna Rocheleau, was enthusiastic in her support and provided the fertile ground from which the club has grown.

Our club philosophy was based on strong ensemble traditions. That no one person was more important than any other. That hard work and taking care of the details would produce quality results. That with each new theatrical project we would attempt something untried and challenge ourselves to raise the bar on expectations. Our search to fulfill the demands of the theatre muses would continue to be our quest.

Viking Drama. A place where respect, cooperation, quality, and pride were words to guide and challenge. A place where young adolescents could gather and be listened to with respect. They would be given opportunities to develop their self-confidence and self-respect. They would be given responsibilities and expectations to fulfill them with at a level to instill pride.

It is only with the proper guidance and supervision that young adolescents can hope to achieve at an adult level. They must be given direction and taught skills to achieve. They must learn to think, design, plan and execute. They must be taught to re-evaluate and reconsider. They must be taught the value of introspection and the value of celebrating success even when touched with mistakes. They must be shown the value of order and organization. The must learn the steps to achieve success.

Adults must know when to stand back and know when to lend a hand. To know when to jump in with aid and know when to let failure be the teacher. To be there when the question is asked and when it isn't. To guide to a standard of quality and demand it in the work of the untrained. To make sure you show them the correct way to produce quality and make sure they follow your direction if it means redoing...redoing...redoing. Be willing to let them run with the wild idea and follow behind. Have the courage to listen to their wisdom and guide their journey with understanding and love.

Our next milestone has to be the 1976/77 season. That's the blank space in the list of Viking Drama's show schedule. The reason is that Viking Drama was forced to go on strike. The sponsor was not being paid a stipend as were all coaches and club leaders. A line had to be drawn in the sand. The Viking students of this year probably made the greatest sacrifice in the club's history. We did not produce anything. Because of their sacrifice and their parents vocal support, the next contract contained a $125 stipend for the Drama Club. We produced our first musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Our young actors Susie and Patrick as J. Pierpont Finch and Rosemary.

Since 1978, the club has continued to grow. The membership of the 6th grade was added in 1994/95 when they were included in our first fall production, Mirth and Mayhem The first show on the new Viking stage in 1985/86 was Androcles and the Lion and the final show in 1996/96 was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

In 1984, the Viking Drama Club first affiliated with the International Thespian Society. Our efforts to provide the highest levels of recognition for our students, their successes and our passion for the benefits of middle school theatre sought a national venue.

Studio 56, our parent support group began in 1993 under the leadership of Mark and Sue Jeep. The club has consistently improved its production values and its technical possibilities. Each year new talented students have risen to the call. In 1997, another milestone was passed as our program's stature was raised by an invitation to speak at the National Middle School Theatre Forum presented by the Educational Theatre Association.

The true spirit of the Viking Drama program, our alumni, continue to spread passion for the arts across the country and around the world. With Kevin Anderson's nomination for a Tony Award, J. Spencer Greene's Jefferson Award, Mike Caplan's continued broadcasts of the weather on WLS-TV in Chicago, Dawn Ferry's work on Sundance Film Festival winner Smoke Signals, Kim Ferry's continued work on the X-Files, Jason Ribando's work at Disney, Karen Bosnak's work with the Jenni Jones Show and the numerous theatre arts/English graduates currently teaching in high schools, Viking Drama lives on into the future.

The new millenium finds Viking Drama Club at the fore front of middle school theatre education...several invitations to present middle school theatre philosophy to an enthusiastic Illinois and national audiences. Viking Drama Club.....proud tradition of talent...looking toward the future.

Year 2000
Our program has grown and our production values have continued to increase over the years to the point where Viking Drama is no longer a one person program. Our efforts to establish a larger department continue. Our administration is aware that one person is no longer able to maintain the program. The next step of establishing a technical position to compliment a performance position belongs to our school board and administration. Our students deserve opportunities and attention beyond what one instructor can provide. Skills in technical theatre and performance are necessary to maintain Viking Drama at its current levels. Our program is visionary in its empowerment of young adolescents. It's value can be seen in each passing class. The excitement continues to build about our future and the future of theatre in middle schools across the nation.

Viking Drama is a wonderful program, with a well equipped space, talented students, supportive parents, and a Superintendent who understands the value of theatre to young adolescents. Our vigilance is important over the next few years as the reins shift to a new generation. It is our hope that as our bands have continued to be great due to the successive hiring of great band instructors, Viking Drama will flourish with the encouragement of enlightened administrators and the passion of talented teachers.

Retirement Update
June 9th, 2003

It is with the greatest joy that I introduce
Mr. Jason Economus, Viking's new drama teacher.

Mr. Economus is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with a degree in Theatre Education. Even more importantly he is a graduate of Viking Middle School and a very accomplished actor with numerous productions under his belt. His passion for the theatre and caring for young people makes him the perfect choice for our program.

Mr. Economus takes the reins of Viking Drama at its most fragile moment. The referendum to support after school programs including Viking Drama Club failed. This means that the production schedule will be suspended and our once extensive program will be limited to classroom instruction.

This interruption in the developmental process places Viking Drama in danger of extinction. Members of the Gurnee Community have seen fit to vote to restrict the funds needed to continue this ground breaking educational programming to its children. Never in our history has there been a greater need for another generation of Gurnee adolescents educated in this art of cooperation and respect. Never has there been a greater need for students to be educated to work together for the greater good. Never has there been a greater need to reach out to each young adolescent and provide them with a safe and secure place to develop their self-esteem and confidence.

Hopefully, the community will rise against this darkness and fight to restore programs that for so long made our schools the magnet to attract new families to the area. Perhaps a year of students need to be sacrificed to make the blind see and the lame walk. Hopefully we won't hang our heads and fade into the darkness of ignorance. Gurnee parents and concerned citizens, it is time to stand and fight the darkness. Provide whatever is necessary to restore drama to its full stength at Viking School.

Comments by Jim Neal on his retirement from District 56, June 9th, 2003.

August 23, 2005 Update:

As of this date, Mr. Economus has resigned his teaching position to resume his acting career. He spent his summer doing work in Door County, WI and has several performances lined up in Milwaukee this coming year.

The threat of reduced production as stated above was held off for the 2003-04 and 04-05 school years. I have recently learned that Viking Drama's Fall Production was eliminated from the extra duty schedule. What the result will be is unknown at this writing.

The new drama teacher and sponsor of the Viking Drama Club will be Ms. Clare Manning. Our sincere best wishes to her and to the Viking Drama program.

2005-2006 Update:

Ms. Clare Manning has taken the reins of Viking Drama with grace and professionalism. Her debut season, 2005-2006, included ambitious projects including, The Wiz, The Gift, and the first of its kind at Viking, Dinner Theatre. Even faced with the serious cut of the fall production from the extra duty schedule, Ms. Manning provided incredible challenges for the young adolescents of District 56.

Under Ms. Manning's capable direction, we can be assured of Viking Drama's continued growth and success. Prospects for the tradition of high expectations, student empowerment, and quality productions look very good.

With Clare Manning's June wedding, came the realization that Viking Drama would take a significant portion of her new married life from her. She decided that she would take a part-time position at Grayslake Central High School. This left the position at Viking vacant for the 2006-2007 school year.

2006-to date:

Viking's newest director, Ms. Karen Pionke

Karen started her theatre adventure many moons ago. Originally, Ms. Pionke performed in musical and non-musical productions in Milwaukee, WI, along with print ad and radio work.

Upon moving to IL in 1987, she took more of a behind the scenes approach to theatre. Karen served for 8 years as the fine arts coordinator for Grayslake District 46, served on the Board of Children's programming at The College of Lake County and worked CLC's summer productions.

The past 6 years she has taught drama in Lake County, first at Palombi Middle School and now with Viking. During the last 6 years she has directed and produced 31 productions, among those were A Midsummer Night's Dream, Meet Me In St. Louis, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Canterville Ghost. Othello, and The Somewhat True Tales of Robinhood.

She could not do this job without a group of dedicated volunteers and the love and support of her family. Thanks mom and dad, Ronnie, Megan and Corey, and BJ.

Break a leg, Ms. Pionke!