From the Wisconsin State Journal: “School’s artist-in-residence brings serious acting chops”

The Wisconsin State Journal recently featured an article by Pamela Cotant about the MCDS theater program:

James WagonerWESTPORT — James Wagoner, whose acting credits include regional theater, film and television, is sharing his talents and experience with students at Madison Country Day School as its first dedicated theater director.

The students are taking notice of the specialist they have in their midst and are appreciating his style. He actively seeks student input and is focused on building skills, not just on putting on a production.

“It was very holistic,” junior Isabelle Stade, 16, said about being stage manager and assistant director in the fall production of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the school. “It made it a lot more engaging and made us all want to be a part of it.”

Wagoner, a lecturer in the UW-Madison department of theater and drama and director of the Young Actors Academy for Children’s Theater of Madison, said the job aligns with his life mission.

“What I’m trying to do is sort of find an artistic home where I can use all my different experiences and skills to help,” Wagoner said. “I also love academic theater because it’s so much more than selling a ticket.”

Wagoner said he is trying to create theater experiences that reinforce the school’s philosophy, which includes encouraging student involvement and finding ways for students to express themselves. That means getting students involved in all aspects of the theater productions.

Theater also is another way to develop a community at the school, he said. Madison Country Day School in Westport, just north of Madison, enrolls 440 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

Wagoner is currently serving as an artist-in-residence, but he could move into a more permanent position next year as the school seeks to boost its theater program.

In the past, the school plays were directed by a music teacher on the staff at the time, so the job has been handled by different people over the years.

Wagoner brings years of experience as a performer, playwright, director and drama teacher at Flowery Branch High School in Georgia. His TV credits include a recurring role on the show “In the Heat of the Night.” He worked in theater and communicative arts with Georgia Governor’s Honors Program for gifted and talented high school students.

“He is such a vital part of the community. He’s a professional, so it’s pretty awesome to have him,” said ninth-grader Patrick Coy-Bjork, 14, who played Valentine in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Last week, during the school’s “Soaring into the Arts” Fine Arts Week, Wagoner put on workshops aimed to introduce theater arts to the students and build confidence, self-esteem and communication skills.

Some students interviewed after the workshop for fifth-graders said it was fun and it encouraged them to take part in the spring play, “The Secret Garden.”

“As a director, he doesn’t take over,” said fifth-grader Lilly Bennett, 10. “He lets the kids decide a lot of it.”