The Butler High School Bulldogs ranked seventh in the nation among scholastic football teams this season. When a talented player quits a team that good to focus on theater, you’d expect eyebrows to shoot up in disbelief. At Butler, they didn’t.
The reason? Theater teacher Barbara Dial Mager.
Her squads have gone to the state finals of the N.C. Theatre Conference competition in eight of her 15 years at Butler. NCTC recently acknowledged her legacy by naming her K-12 Educator of the Year. She’ll get the award Saturday, before the evening performance of “Hairspray.”
“Every show of hers that’s come through the NCTC festival has been tightly and creatively directed, with great ensembles and nice individual performances,” says Ron Law, an NCTC board member who will hand her the prize. (He also runs Theatre Charlotte.)
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“Her casts and crews are respectful, disciplined kids, right down to the ones with the smallest amount of time onstage. They have this great love and passion for theater, and you know that had to come from their teacher.”
Mager’s secret? Letting kids mess up, then right themselves with some help. She doesn’t use professionals, except for a rehearsal pianist: Cast, crew, musicians and even her choreographer attend Butler. (Choral director Lorna Graves and band director Joshua Stevenson work with the students.)
“They can’t be artists who learn everything about painting and never go near a canvas,” she says. “They have to have a chance to fail.”
If this sounds like wise counsel, that’s no accident. Mager has taught for 35 years, 26 for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“She’s concise, direct and honest to a fault,” says Dana Alderman, who worked with her for five years at Butler and moved to Rocky River High School in 2010. “You may not want to hear it, but if it’s in your best interest, she’ll let you know. She can also be soft and nurturing – she won’t admit that – (and) her kids adore and respect her like nobody else, because she always speaks the truth.
“I have known her to convince even the most irate parent that it would not be in their son or daughter’s best interests to crush their dreams, but rather support and nurture them as they’re about to move on in life.”
What of her own dreams?
Barbara Dial grew up in Huntington, W.Va., the city that produced Peter Marshall, Michael Cerveris and other Broadway-bound actors. After overcoming speech issues as a little girl – “When I entered school, my mother was the only person who could understand me” – she got hooked on drama at Marshall University.
“First day of college, I auditioned for Ben Jonson’s ‘The Alchemist.’ I didn’t know who Ben Jonson was or what the play was about. I got a six-line part and attended rehearsals even when the director didn’t need me.”
En route to bachelor’s and masters’ degrees from Marshall, she vowed to work with every theater teacher. So she did, though “I got only one lead: Veta Louise in ‘Harvey.’ That was the only time my parents ever sent me flowers.”
Barbara has rheumatoid arthritis and two fused vertebrae in her neck. She realized acting might not pan out, especially when “my mother asked what I’d do for a living if my arthritis became so bad I had to work in a wheelchair. ‘You can always teach,’ she said.”
She came to Charlotte for a common reason – one of her best friends lived here, and Mager had enjoyed visits to the city – and an odd one: Sharp teachers in Huntington were often groomed to become lawmakers who represented teachers’ interests in the State Senate or House of Delegates. “I was next in line to run, but did I really want that? I didn’t think so.”
She started at McClintock Junior High in 1987 with “Juvie,” a play about delinquency. She recalls her principal diplomatically saying, “Last year, we did ‘Cinderella.’ That was a nice production.”
But she had bigger ideas: “Plays should make you think, question, get angry, laugh, cry,” she says. “You don’t have to like them, but you do have to be affected.”
After her first quarter, she recalls, some students were failing. Her principal observed that nobody should fail drama. “I said, ‘Yes, isn’t it terrible? But I won’t give them an F if they just try.’ I believe you have to explain your expectations, and children will rise to meet them.”
An unswerving approach
After one year at McClintock, she says, her drama numbers doubled. She produced plays about divorce, teenage alcoholism or sexually transmitted diseases, letting parents and students discuss what they’d just seen over desserts and drinks afterward. (Health care professionals came to offer literature and advice.)
She bonded with incoming principal Joel Ritchie, who took her with him to Butler when he opened that school in 1997. “I’ve been blessed with good administrators who knew that arts make schools better,” she says. “Kids involved with the arts get higher SAT scores and scholarships.”
Will Leach, Butler’s current principal, says Mager and he “hit it off from day one. She is the expert; I turn her loose and trust her to run with things. Her past success has certainly provided her with the freedom to (do that), and I get the pleasure of sitting back and watching the finished product. I have yet to be disappointed.”
Her students weigh in
Branden Cook, who plays Seaweed in “Hairspray,” is the guy who gave up football for footwork. (That decision paid off: Last week, Wake Forest University offered him its Presidential Scholarship in Theatre.)
“Her drive kind of drives us,” he says. “She tells us, ‘I push you because I know what you have in you.’ She gives us freedom to experiment, to expand and find out who we are as actors.”
Sometimes Mager offers specific advice: She helped Cook with enunciation and projection. Sometimes, as with Rebecca Rushing (who’s playing Penny), Mager has had a broader impact.
“She breaks you out of your shell,” says Rushing. “She brings out your self-esteem and potential, even if you don’t see it. She makes you more of a whole person.”
Mager smiles when she thinks about higher-paying jobs she has brushed off. Two attorneys once hired her to critique courtroom delivery and told her their colleagues would pay well for her input. She briefly contemplated studying the law herself.
“I’d be successful at some other job, because I don’t know how to fail,” she says. “But would I be happy?”
The woman who “can’t bear stagnation” seems to have an ideal set-up: She programs 15 to 20 shows a year for classes, from one-acts to “Hairspray”-sized musicals.
She’s an NCTC perennial: Last year’s entries were “The Cop and the Anthem,” an adaptation of O. Henry, and “The Absolutely Insidious and Utterly Terrifying Truth About Cat Hair,” in which the cast played feline follicles. (“It was not just stupid but stoopid. I like to go to contests with totally different kinds of plays.”)
And her theater program regularly runs in the black, using donations and ticket sales to pay all of its costs.
“I could retire now,” she says. “But as long as my health holds out, and I have a principal who lets me do what I want to do – which Will does, bless his heart – I’ll teach as long as I’m effective. But it has to be fun.”