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Curtain Call: Dickson bids farewell to Bearden High

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Many people are clueless at the age of 14 what field of work they want to go into for a career. Mrs. Leann Dickson was not one of those people. The theater arts were something that always called out to her, and when she took the stage at Homewood High School in Alabama to perform the musical Oklahoma she was sold.

After spending three decades in education – with most of those years at Bearden – Mrs. Dickson officially started her retirement on Wednesday. Her current and former students, though, will attest to the fact that her impact will continue to reverberate in their lives, even if her voice will no longer echo around the BHS auditorium.

What makes someone attracted to their area of work? For doctors and nurses, they may be drawn to the medical field because they love saving lives or they just love science. For lawyers, they may be drawn to the legal field because they love the high stress conditions of the courtroom or the level of authority the position gives them. For Mrs. Dickson and the theater arts, the combination of singing, dancing, and acting all contributing to one story is what sealed the deal. She may have known what field she wanted to work in, but to discover where her true calling was in the theater arts, she would have a long path ahead to finish where she is now.

Mrs. Dickson’s journey would begin at what to do after high school. This decision is one that makes many high school graduates shiver with anxiety. Her original plan was to attend the University of Alabama where she had received a full ride scholarship. Her plans changed at the last minute when she decided to attend the University of Montevallo in order to study theater more extensively. Although to many people this may be a shocking change of heart, in reality her work all throughout high school in theater and dance were what drove her to make this decision. The extensive opportunities that would follow would make this last minute decision the best decision she could have made at the time.

Once she graduated from college, Mrs. Dickson got hired at a repertory company, which is a theatrical establishment that performs different musicals different days of the week. She then moved on to performing professionally on a tour. This tour only lasted two weeks, however, because it was here that Mrs. Dickson realized that professional production was not where her heart belonged. Mrs. Dickson then decided to go back to her hometown where she would find her true calling.

Her old high school theater teacher, Pat Bailey, invited Mrs. Dickson to come back to high school in order to shadow her while gaining experience. This was the moment when her career path became certain – teaching was Mrs. Dickson’s calling. Bailey allowed Mrs. Dickson to teach a limited number of classes but also allowed her to direct the show while Bailey was the technical director. Mrs. Dickson has modeled much of her practice after that of Bailey because Bailey “would understand that absolutely every role was so crucial to the [musical].”

Mrs. Dickson, 22 or 23 at this time, went back to college in order to earn her teaching credentials in order to pursue teaching the theater arts to new generations full time. Her first job would be back at Homewood High School, and interestingly one of her first students, Dr. Bill Cleveland, grew up to be the Superintendent of the Homewood City school system.

“She was truly passionate about theater, and it was obvious that she loved her students and her job,” Dr. Cleveland said. “[Mrs. Dickson] was one of the reasons I wanted to go into education.”

From Birmingham, Mrs. Dickson traveled to Atlanta, San Francisco, and Honolulu, before ultimately finishing her career with 21 years in Knoxville at Bearden. Mrs. Dickson joined the Bearden family in 1997 and went on to help mold one of the country’s most renowned theater departments.

“There’s a couple people always you hear about when you talk about Bearden High School and she is one of them,” Bearden principal Dr. John Bartlett said.

One skill that Mrs. Dickson has developed over her years of experience is the art of experimentation. Most teachers have a set lesson plan and they know exactly what they will cover and how they will teach the material over the course of the semester. Mrs. Dickson does not have that luxury because of the nature of a theater director.

“The thing I love about both of them [teaching and directing] is there’s always a better way to do it, and then the thing I hate about it is there’s always another way to do it,” Mrs. Dickson said.

Mrs. Leann Dickson’s height barely exceeds five feet. Yet, many of her students use the adjective “intimidating” when describing her. With unparalleled energy and the ability to perform a flawless tap number at moment’s notice, to Mrs. Dickson, teaching drama is more than just a job.

Mrs. Dickson’s work building Bearden’s musical theater department is derived from the standard of professionalism to which she holds her students. Even the audition process for the musical theater class mimics that of a professional scenario, requiring students to present headshots, choreographed dances, monologues, and songs that will be scored and ranked in order to establish who will make it into the group of 30.

“There was never a time that Mrs. Dickson treated us like we were in high school, and I appreciated that,” senior and three-year cast member Allie Lawhorn said. “She knew we could handle certain situations on our own and she never failed to grow us in that aspect.”

Despite fostering a familial atmosphere within the cast, she places emphasis on hard work and stresses its importance by leading through example. Junior Grant Malone also said that during tech week (the arduous week of dress rehearsals leading up to the musical), it isn’t unusual for students to have to remind Mrs. Dickson to drink water and go to the restroom, due to her preoccupation with the events transpiring on stage. Even with all the chaos of putting on a production, however, Mrs. Dickson still manages to make students her priority.

“If she can see that you are not okay, or maybe you are off your game one day, and she knows something is wrong, she will make it her mission to make you feel better,” Malone said.

Senior Mackenzie Stump, who has been a part of the program for two years, agrees that Mrs. Dickson’s investment in the well-being of her students is what sets her apart from other drama teachers.

“What’s special about Mrs. Dickson is that she really cares about us, as opposed to some drama teachers who are just [teaching drama] as a job,” Stump said. “She really sees us as her children – the children that she never had.

“She’s always telling us she would take a bullet for us, and she really just wants us to be able to talk to her.”

This dedication is also what contributes to the on-stage success of the group. Her students find that her one-on-one commitment to her students is something that carries into the acting side of things, and Mrs. Dickson constantly emphasizes that all roles in a production are important. From ensemble parts to leads, her cast members are encouraged to put 100% effort into their performances.

“Every single person in that class knows there are no ‘small roles,’ and Mrs. Dickson taught us that from day one of being in that class,” Lawhorn said. “A show can only be as great as the chorus.

“Learning that over the years has changed how each student perceives their part. Whether we are the lead or a chorus member, we always give the same heart and effort.”

Added Malone:  “She makes us write like two or three papers throughout the semester, and one of them is a character analysis. So, even if you don’t have a part, or if you’re in the ensemble, you have to create your own character.”

“You have to create your own back story, and you have to answer all these questions and that truly will [help] on stage.”

In stressing the importance of every part, Mrs. Dickson demonstrates, above all else, the value of individuality. Her students say that she wants them to recognize that each of them has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Malone and Stump say that she has helped them improve in respect to their individual skills.

“Because of my physical type, I am not lead material – I’m just not,” Malone said. “I’m like the comedic, character role, and I can do things with my voice and my body to make it look like not me.

“She’s helped me improve in that. She’s helped me accept it and play to my strengths.”

For Stump, her weaknesses are more about recognizing her worth on stage, and always wondering if she is good enough. She said Mrs. Dickson told her something that really hit home.

“She said ‘if only the sweetest bird sang, then the rest of the forest would be quiet,’” Stump said. “We all have our different strengths and differences.

“She doesn’t want us to all be the same. She wants us to all bring something different to the table.”

For her students, Mrs. Dickson plays many parts. Beyond being their director, she acts as their glue, their energizer, and their mentor; she helps them reflect and propel forward, whether that is regarding their acting ambitions or off-stage concerns. While impactful in a variety of ways, one in particular stands out in the mind of Lawhorn, one that is perhaps the most important piece of Mrs. Leann Dickson’s legacy.

“There are so many impacts she will forever have on my life but one specifically is that she showed us everyday how to have heart,” Lawhorn said. “That is the key to anything in life.

“As long as you give whatever you’re doing your all, you will always succeed.”

 

Bearden alumni, many of whom pursued professions in the arts, can also attest to the emphasis that Mrs. Dickson places on the value of hard work.

Miranda Parham, who graduated in 2009, said that Mrs. Dickson greatly influenced her decision to attend the theater program at Southern Methodist University, where she earned a BFA in theater studies. Parham is now a working actor in Los Angeles and is member of The Groundlings School for improv and sketch comedy.

“While I was her student, Mrs. Dickson taught me what it means to be a performing artist: committing to rehearsals every day, having great empathy for and awareness of other people’s experiences, and sacrificing personal pride for the greater story,” Parham said.

She also says that Mrs. Dickson’s impact on her meant completely devoting herself to the craft and becoming a self-disciplined performer – even if that meant adjusting to a little bit of tough love. Parham cites her senior performance of “Guys n Dolls” as an example of this, when she purposely altered a line during the show.

“The line was something like, ‘I’m going on a date with Society Max,’ and I changed the name to ‘Rusty Charlie,’ which was the character name of the guy that I was actually dating at the time, who happened to also be cast in this musical,” Parham said.

While Parham saw this as merely an innocuous jest, Mrs. Dickson was less than amused by this creative choice and expressed her discontent with Parham’s decision after the show.

“She pointed out that I could have thrown off the other actors on stage, and that more importantly, I was setting a bad example for the younger kiddos,” Parham said. “Nowadays, I can memorize script pages verbatim in no time at all, and I think that instance has a lot to do with it.”

Jordan Bondurant, a 2006 graduate, is another professional actor whom Dickson taught and influenced immensely.

“I use lessons I learned from Mrs. Dickson every single day,” Bondurant said. “She taught me how to tell a story, how to speak out, but most importantly, to never take anything for granted.”

Bondurant currently lives in New York City and has worked in the Broadway production “Mamma Mia,” the Toby Award winner “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and has appeared on the television show “Law and Order: SVU.”

“Mrs. Dickson not only teaches the ins and outs of theatre, but she molds her students into respectful and driven young adults,” Bondurant said.

Bondurant expressed his admiration for Mrs. Dickson in the sense that she is doubly caring and brilliant, fully exemplifying how talent and selflessness are not mutually exclusive.

Alumni who chose professions outside of stage acting also say they reap the benefits of Mrs. Dickson’s teaching.

2010 graduate Conner Harville works as a producer for 3 Sons Media, a Nashville-based video production company that specializes in corporate, commercial, and sports video content.

3 Sons Media has worked with reputable and influential clients such as Nike, the NFL, and the American Heart Association.

Harville feels that Dickson taught him many essential skills that have translated into success for his career, most importantly, the significance of collaborating with and caring for others.

“[Mrs. Dickson] is a creative friend that continues to push me to deliver the best work possible while caring for others,” Harville said.

One of Mrs. Dickson’s greatest attributes as an instructor, among many, many others, is her ability to recognize talent in her students and push them to fully realize their potential as actors, and this is especially the case with 2015 alum Brady Moldrup, who cited Mrs. Dickson as the sole reason that he is an actor today.

“One thing that I have realized recently is that Mrs. Dickson was the first person who really told me that I could dance,” Moldrup said. “She said that I moved like a young Gene Kelly.”

Mrs. Dickson identified Moldrup’s natural affinity for dancing and drew out his talent to maximize his capabilities.

“I had always loved dancing socially at weddings and whatnot, but she pushed me to take my first dance class – that I am not kicking myself for not taking earlier – and planted the seed for a real passion that I have for choreography and for choreographing,” Moldrup said.

Moldrup, who was best known on Bearden’s stage for playing Ren in “Footloose,” is currently enrolled at the University of Memphis, pursuing a BFA in musical theatre while minoring in dance. He is unaware of his exact plans for the future but is certain it will be in the realm of theatre arts.

“I would love to act. I would love to write. I would love to direct. I would love to choreograph,” Moldrup said. “And thanks to Mrs. D, I would really love to teach high school students about life through theatre. I know that in whatever I do, I plan to love people as much as Mrs. Dickson does.”

2016 alum Anna Smith, who played the female lead in three consecutive productions, also attests to the sheer expansiveness of Mrs. Dickson’s vast influence on her students.

“Above everything, Mrs. Dickson taught me to never stop believing in myself,” Smith said. “She taught me to always find the light in the darkness, and to always find the joyous moments in a show that reminds you why you started performing in the first place.”

Smith is currently attending Pace University in New York City, with a major in musical theatre. She says that what she learned from Mrs. Dickson has already given her an advantage in her college theatre courses.

“I know how to take a monologue and create beats and thoughts and objectives and goals,” Smith said. “Many of my classmates haven’t even done that, so she has given me that extra knowledge that colleges teach.”

Smith is aspiring to take her career to Broadway, but says if that does not work, then she will still continue to share her love and adoration of theatre with the world.

The common theme with Bearden alumni is that Mrs. Dickson’s impact has longevity. Her lessons remain relevant for those who pursue professions on and off the stage.

No matter where her students end up, it’s important to her that they succeed in pushing themselves to overcome new challenges. From helping a student through a tough day or encouraging them to try something, Mrs. Dickson’s retirement will certainly not be the end of the end of the legacy she has created. While she will be missed, those who had the privilege of learning from her find solace in the fortitude of the values that she instills within all her students.

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Curtain Call: Dickson bids farewell to Bearden High