Remarks from Sally Baker, New Springer Theatre Academy Director
I am humbled and excited to take the position of Springer Theatre Academy and Children’s Theatre director. To be honest, I kind of can’t believe I am here. Standing on this stage, I have come full circle, and because this place, these people have been part of my life for so long, I am ready to help lead the Springer’s programs into the next chapter of its life. I believe my experiences have prepared me to take this position at this very time and in this very place. Let me explain.
Thirty years ago, I was cast in my very first play here at the Springer. I was a shiny red lollipop in a play called Babes in Toyland. My father, Paul Vander Gheynst, was the musical director, and even though it was a long time ago, I have very distinct memories of that play — I remember my costume and some of my blocking. I remember some of the songs and other members of the cast and crew. But my two most vivid memories of my kindergarten stage debut bookend that very meaningful season in my life. My first rehearsal and the final strike party remain clear in my mind, and these 30 years later, they still influence the teacher, director and administrator I am today.
On the night of my first rehearsal, my mom must have been out of town or at a meeting or something. I remember that my dad made spaghetti casserole in the microwave for my sister and me. My sister Amy was playing a candy cane in the show and seemed cool and calm. She was three years older, and I longed for her 8-year-old wisdom. I was terrified. I did not know what to expect or how to be successful. I had seen other plays here at the Springer and I was determined to be a part of that magic, but I had no idea how to do that.
That night after our microwaved spaghetti, my dad brought us down to the old actor’s arena for rehearsal, and before rehearsal even began, he introduced me to the young lady playing the lead. She must have been 17 or 18 but seemed so old, so experienced, so perfect. I was star-struck. I opened my mouth to say hello, or introduce myself or something, and instead of speaking, I threw up all over that poor girl. All of that microwaved spaghetti. I was mortified. I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in, certain the director was going to kick me out of the play. I cried and cried — before I could even understand the magic or figure out how to be a lollipop, I had lost my chance.
Eventually, I came out of the bathroom and learned that I still had my part. I’m sure that poor girl probably stayed away from me for awhile, but I had another shot. Being involved with that play changed me forever. I understood what it meant to be part of a team, to work towards a common goal, to struggle and celebrate with a group during the process.
When the show closed and the set and costumes had been put away, I hid in the dressing room from my parents. It was time to go and they didn’t know where I was. I was hiding because I just didn’t want to go home. When my mom found me, I cried because I thought I would never have the experience again. I thought I would never feel so included, so important to a group. Mom convinced me that it would happen again. I distinctly remember standing in the Green Room backstage and listening to her explain that if I wanted to have the same kind of experience next time, I needed to give of myself generously. That we get out what we put in.
My mom’s wisdom of that moment so many years ago still impacts me today.
There is great power, great opportunity of the arts in young people’s lives. The Academy’s mantra of “life skills through stage skills” applies not only to what we do at the Springer Theatre Academy or with a particular production, but it truly stretches to all areas of life.
I have worked in theatres in several states and regions of the country, and one lesson I have learned is that the Springer is unique: Theatres everywhere create plays. People are hard at work creating their art. But the Springer intentionally allows the art to help create the person. Being involved in classes or shows here helps define the person — a life is changed by the art. This is a place where the experience of having created something leaves you marked in a new way.
In the last 15 years, I have had a wide array of experiences working in theatre and schools. I have worked as an actor, a director, a designer. I have taught in the classroom and for theatres. I have trained teachers, trained teaching artists and created programs for teaching artists to work with young people. I have created and run education programs, managed new and established playwrighting and devising programs and worked with some of the most influential names in our field. I actively bring this experience to my work at the Springer because in every job, with every class, with every program I have worked in, my common inquiry has been, “How would this work at the Springer?”
As a teacher and administrator, I have a vision for the way the programs at the Springer can continue to grow to become a flagship teaching theatre, providing opportunities at every level for students and volunteers to understand how a professional theatre functions. The education programs that Ron has established have grown successfully because of his commitment to quality programs that focus on the individual student’s needs and growth, and I have every intention of continuing in Ron’s legacy.
As a collaborator, I eagerly anticipate working with Paul, the Springer staff and community leaders to create solutions for challenges Columbus faces. We can all agree that the community of Columbus sits at the precipice of something new, and the arts and the Springer Opera House will certainly play a huge part in what that will look like. I’m not certain that anyone knows quite what the next 5 or 10 years will bring our community, but I do know that I am passionate about being an active part of that conversation.
I have loved theatre and the Springer for just about as long as I can remember, but the day that I became a parent, I understood the power the arts have in young peoples’ lives. My husband, Brad and I are the very proud parents of our 3 ½ year old daughter, Evie. Now, Evie is very much a child of her parents — precocious, talkative, friendly, nurturing and a little bit stubborn. She is learning and exploring every day, making sense of who she is in the world. I did not understand the function of the arts in kids’ lives until Evie. How essential imagination, pretend and role play are to her forming her worldview! She learns by doing and imagining, the very foundation of performance. As one of my high school students so wisely said in class recently, if acting is doing, and doing is being, then acting must be just being. That is certainly true for Evie. What’s interesting to me is that almost a year after seeing Charlotte’s Web here last summer, Evie still wrestles with big questions from that play. She is still making sense of it today. Even last week when I told her that we would be coming here today, she asked if Wilbur would be here, too. That play, Evie’s first play, made such an impression on her. And because I am her parent, I see that. Her first play struck her deeply. And what a beautiful play it was.
But here’s the thing: Every play for young audiences will be someone’s first play. There is great responsibility in that statement, that every day, with every show and every class and every summer Springer Theatre Academy, the Springer will leave its mark on those it encounters. As a teacher and a director but especially as a parent, I believe it is essential that the programs we offer shape our children to become empathetic, creative, collaborative, critical-thinkers who change the world. We need to be intentional that our stage skills produce the life skills our community so desperately needs.
The Springer recently celebrated its 144th birthday. Many people have come through these doors and across these stages in those 144 years. In his explanation of the Springer Theatre Academy and the Salutations movements, Ron always says that we honor our past, acknowledge the present and salute the future. In its 144 years, the Springer has created a legacy. Being involved here means more than just doing a show or taking a class: It changes your very identity. You become the Springer and reflect it in every interaction, whether you mean to or not. Being part of the Springer isn’t something you can drop or erase. Once you are a part, you are a part forever. We are the Springer.
I thank Paul, Ron and the Board of Directors for the honor and challenge of this new position for me, and I promise to follow my mom’s wisdom from 30 years ago in the Green Room following the close of Babes in Toyland: To give generously of myself. To understand that we will get out what we put in. I would have not guessed that all of these years later, I would be returning home to play another role in the place I have loved for as long as I can remember, but I make this promise to myself, to the Springer Theatre Academy students and families, and to Paul and Ron: My work will honor the past, acknowledge the present and salute the future.
Thank you for your very warm welcome, both for me as Springer Theatre Academy and Children’s Theatre director and for my family — Brad and Evie. Your response has been overwhelming, gracious and humbling.
Now let’s get to work!