Award-winning educator and director Wendell Tabb has dreams of Broadway – for his students.
Tabb has been drama director at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, for nearly 30 years, and his award-winning international theater program is recognized around the world. But his proudest achievement is giving his theater students a place to develop their talents and the opportunity to shine on a national and global stage, from New York to Beijing and Los Angeles to Lima. In January, Hillside students were invited to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the National Council of Performing Arts of the Cuban Ministry.
Of more than 300 historically black high schools that once operated in North Carolina before desegregation, only five remain today, and Hillside is the oldest. It has a rich history and many famous alumni, some of whom participated in its theater arts program. Under Tabb’s direction, the theater program produces four plays each year in addition to productions performed around the world as part of Tabb’s International Professional Student Theatre Exchange. NEA Today talked to Tabb about his program and what the performing arts brings to students.
When you started at Hillside, you planned to stay for one year. What happened?
Wendell Tabb: I was offered a job after the drama teacher at the time, Donna Buie Dill, landed a role in the movie The Color Purple. I was a first year graduate student but had done my student teaching at the school. When Ms. Dill asked me if I would take over the program, I said yes. I needed money while I was in graduate school, but my plans were to finish graduate school and move to New York or California to pursue my dreams of becoming a stage or film actor. Little did I know, my dreams would become the dreams of my students. To me, the real stage is standing in front of students each day trying to bring out the best in them. The joy and excitement I experience when I see them smile with confidence is a real dream come true.
How do you get students interested in the theater program?
WT: The quality of the shows have been the driving force behind the high number of students wanting to be in the program. Elementary and middle school students see the plays and they make a lasting impression. Most of the students in my class say that they came to see a Hillside Play when they were in elementary or middle school and they knew that was what they wanted to do when they got to high school. But it’s not just about acting – students are involved in everything from stage and production management to lighting and set design. There are different aspects that appeal to different students and that draws from the whole student population.
What are some lessons you’ve learned as a performer that you share with your students?
WT: Before I was trained professionally, I thought everyone should go for the lead or the biggest role. But I soon learned that it doesn’t matter how many lines you have. What matters is how well you deliver them and how well you portray your character. I always share this with my students because they love counting their lines. I also tell them that even if they have no lines, their role is important. There are no small roles, in theater or in life.
Can you describe your theater exchange program?
WT: I started the International Professional-Student Theatre Exchange Program in 1988 to provide students with the opportunity to work with performers from all over the world. Our students didn’t have many opportunities for exposure to other artists outside of Durham, let alone outside the U.S. The first international exchange performance was in 1996 with a trip to St. George, Bermuda, arranged through a college friend from my alma mater North Carolina Central University who was a theatre teacher and native of Bermuda. Since then, our students have performed in Beijing, Sydney, Kenya, London, Osaka, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, and Gambia. We just got word that we’ll be performing in Cuba next!
Why are the performing arts integral to a quality education?
WT: I am a firm believer in educating the whole child. Each child must be able to express himself and find ways to relate to his environment, his peers, his family and his community by thinking about and exploring different options. The performing arts allows students to become more creative and imaginative with self-expression, on stage as well as in everyday life.
What is your favorite production to put on with your students and why?
WT: I have so many favorites, but the best are those in which the students have the most fun. “The Wiz” and “Dreamgirls” are probably the two plays that the students have the most fun performing.