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A Director’s Story

When I was a senior at Drexel High School in 1967, our English teacher, Maxine McCall, decided to direct a school production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I. Kathryn Siphers, our award winning band director, agreed to direct the orchestra. At the time, there were no available theaters or auditoriums that were adequate for such a major undertaking, so Mrs. McCall designed and had a three-part stage built across the gym floor at the Drexel Community Center (now known as the R.O. Huffman Center). The audience sat on the three-tiered wooden bleachers, which had to be uncomfortable, but they were what we had and people didn’t seem to mind. I was fortunate to be in that wonderful show, and it was a truly magical time. Two years later, the McCall/Siphers team reunited to produce Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, and again two years later, in 1971, they produced Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot. The following year, 1972, Burke County held a big arts festival, and Mrs. McCall was approached to re-create the production of Camelot. Many of the students had graduated and moved on to other adventures, so she had to find replacements for those cast members. I was a first year teacher, and I was thrilled when she asked me to participate. Being in that production of Camelot was life-changing for me. I loved everything about it – and still do. Many people in Burke and surrounding counties still remember those plays, and we frequently reminisce about those wonderful experiences.

A few years later, the high schools consolidated, and I became a member of the English faculty at East Burke High. Many of the students remembered the McCall/Siphers musicals and approached me about directing one. I was apprehensive but really interested, so I took a deep breath and a leap of faith and began my journey as a musical theater director. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to direct 12 musicals, including You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1976), The Music Man (1977), My Fair Lady (co-directed with Maxine McCall) (1978), Oklahoma! (1979), Fiddler on the Roof (1980), Brigadoon (1981), Annie Get Your Gun (1982), Carousel (1984), I Do! I Do! (1986), Cinderella (1988), The Music Man again (1992), and Cinderella again (2001). Many of these productions were staged at the Old Rock School in Valdese (a wonderful place), and for six of them, I had the pleasure of collaborating with Kathryn Siphers and the outstanding orchestra that she organized.

During the years when I was active in theater, dedicated, creative teachers at Freedom High School and Western Piedmont Community College were also producing quality musicals and other theater experiences. WPCC, all of the local high schools, and many of the middle and elementary schools continue to have productive drama organizations that provide opportunities for young people to succeed on the stage. Old Colony Players in Valdese has been active for almost 50 years and has kept the theater alive locally. Many local churches have also staged theatrical presentations with great success. There is an obvious need and desire to perform among our local people.

Nearly 30 years ago, I began dreaming about bringing Camelot back, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. My original thought was to go back to the R.O. Huffman Center and re-create the stage as it had been when the school first presented the show. I had hoped that many of the same actors would come back and do the show again. But the time wasn’t right. People were interested but not available. About 20 years ago, I approached my friend Jonathan Berry, who was at the time – and still is – the director of bands at East Burke High – following in the footsteps of his teacher, Kathryn Siphers. I suggested the two of us bring back Camelot in honor of Mrs. McCall and in memory of Miss Siphers. His response? “I’m ready when you are.” I was certainly ready, but the time still wasn’t right. After I retired from the school system, I spent 9 years as full time caregiver for my mother. If you know anything about caregiving, you know that it is an all-consuming task, and I almost forgot about my Camelot dreams. Not long after my mother passed away in 2012, several people asked me, “Weren’t you going to do Camelot? Why not do it now?” So I spoke with Jon again, took another leap of faith, and began to plan. After much discussion with many people, it was decided that we should do our production at the CoMMA and should involve as many people as possible from all over Burke County (and outside the county, too). Our goal is to build bridges as well as give people yet another opportunity to perform.

We have spent the past three years raising the funding that is needed. We still aren’t there yet, but we hope that by next spring we’ll have enough to pay our bills. Among the fund raising activities that we have pursued are the Burke’s Got Talent shows, featuring talented students from grades K-12 who are enrolled in Burke County Public Schools. It has been a real pleasure to work with young people from all across the county as well as the teachers and administrators, and we hope that many of them will be inspired to participate in other performing activities.

Maxine McCall and Kathryn Siphers have been outstanding educators and inspired Jon and me to continue to strive for excellence. Perhaps you were taught by one – or both – of these ladies – or by one of their students. Perhaps you were inspired by a different teacher. Or perhaps you just love to perform. Whatever the reason, please come join us in our quest.

Camelot has been produced locally by other groups since that 1971/72 production, but the timeless story of the king who tried so hard to bring peace to his people by proclaiming that “might doesn’t make right” bears repeating, Frederick Leowe’s lush score never gets old, and the “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” continues to inspire.

Phyllis Garrison

Director, Burke Theater Guild


Coming soon – a blog by Camelot music director Jonathan Berry.