Educator Spotlight: Sandra Taylor

Sandra Taylor at home in Dadeville. (Photo/Cari Gisler Oliver)

Sandra Taylor says she’s worked with legends in Birmingham theater, but she’s a legend herself, having taught for decades at Hoover High School, which has a theater named after her, and worked with other area theaters. Sandra was kind enough to help me kick off another feature, this one talking to folks who have made a career of teaching theater in high school, college or both.

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in Tallapoosa County in the small town of Dadeville, attended Auburn University and graduated in 1963. … It wasn’t until I took a public speaking class that I found myself really enjoying college. I decided that this would be my major.

Can you tell me about your teaching career?

When I was hired to teach speech and English in 1964 at Jordan High School in Columbus, Georgia, a wonderful principal looked at me during the interview and said, “I want these students to be exposed to the theater!” I knew nothing about theater but promised if he would hire me, I would learn. My long journey began of participating in workshops in colleges offering instruction for the teacher who needed to learn producing theater. Harold Hunt at Samford University taught select plays of substance by established playwrights. The excellent drama teacher at Baker High, Marion Frances, taught me all the basics of direction, like blocking, stage pictures, etc.

You also worked at a major regional theater, correct?

I was a tech apprentice at The Barter Theatre in Abington, Virginia. Jane Alexander and David Selby were professional actors that I watched in awe in productions. The most exciting opportunity was actually working with David Selby. He directed one of the children’s plays that I ran sound for and he showed me how to record sound for the production. I had no idea I would later see him in the series “Dark Shadows.” As I passed this process to my students at Jordan when I directed my very first play, the nonmusical version of “Annie Get Your Gun,” I thought of David.

How did your acting career begin?

My acting began at the Columbus Little Theatre, now known as The SpringerTheatre, which is professional. I fell in love with the theater and went from production to production.

And after that came graduate school?

Graduate school at The University of Alabama began in 1971, and after two years I received my degree in speech with an emphasis in theater. My major professors were renowned. Dr. Marion Gallaway, for example, was in school with Tennesee Williams. All sorts of delicious stories were told that we students heard. From grad school, I took a teaching position at Frances Marion College in Florence, South Carolina. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had remained in South Carolina. I was terribly homesick for family and friends!

So you moved back to Alabama.

My story continues as a high-school teacher at what is now Hoover High School. I introduced the idea of teaching drama after a few grueling years as a debate coach. I was told if I could get the students to ask for a drama class, I could teach dramatics. The rest is history, as they say. Now a performance arts facility is underway. Hoover built a smaller theater that seats around 300. It was named the Sandra Taylor Theatre! Everything is there now for the performing arts, including a very talented group of teachers that rival any instructors at any school or university.

But you also did theater at other Birmingham theaters, correct?

When I moved to Birmingham, I called Ward Haarbauer, and he suggested I volunteer at Birmingham Festival Theatre. I met Carl Stewart, Randy Marsh and Vic Fichtner, the three men who would become the legends that gave birth to theater as we know it today in Birmingham.  There was Town and Gown, under the direction of James Hatcher, who was the master of musical theater, and Birmingham Festival Theatre, founded by Carl Stewart, Randy Marsh and Vic Fichtner. Under their direction, I participated in many productions, and when City Equity Theatre was founded by Jonathan Fuller and Alan Gardner, I was asked to audition with Carolyn Messina for “August Osage County.” We were cast as the two principal leading roles as Violet and Barbara. Their toxic relationship between mother and daughter required more in-depth searching of emotional soul-searching than I ever could imagine. … Finally, I joined with Carl Stewart and Cari Gisler, and we presented “Something Unspoken.” The piece is filled with underlying feelings. Carl required his actors to be “off book,” which means no use of script in rehearsal. A great deal of time spent memorizing is required as well as energy, especially if one is teaching all day and rehearsing in the evenings.

Where are you now?

When retirement age arrived, I moved back home to Dadeville, and now I reside at The Veranda, an assisted-living facility that provides for all my needs. … The arts are very much alive here in the Lake Martin area. I have found that everyone wants to be in a play. The Veranda would LOVE for me to direct a play here.  The time required for such an undertaking the staff doesn’t quite grasp. So with that in mind, I attend performances and hear about the wonderful. plans for the future in Birmingham. I look forward to a visit to Birmingham to experience the exciting theater coming to the city in the coming year. I once said that although I enjoy professional theater both near and far, I can see the equivalent right here in my own state. At 81, I can safely say I am enjoying these years of growing older. My very special mother, whom I celebrated this weekend, lived to be 97. I plan to follow in her footsteps.

Finally, Sandra. You’ve spent a lot of time in education. How important are the arts in education?

The arts thrive in our schools all over the southeast. No education is complete if a student cannot express himself, whether he is selling an idea, leading a company or working alongside his fellow worker.

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