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Saturday, April 25, 2009

James "Doc" Miller Retires from MHS Theater

originally posted at RealMadison.org!

I rolled a car once. Green 1964 VW Bug—well-shaped for rolling. Took a curve fast, caught a patch of gravel, spun, ditched, rolled. The car landed on its side. Seeing sparks as the battery tumbled out of the back seat, I leapt out the broken driver's side window and ran across the road, expecting a Hollywood explosion. When nothing went boom, the very next thought in my head was, "Doc's gonna be mad."

Doc? Doc Miller. James R. Miller, retiring director of Madison High School Theater. It was December, 1986, and Doc had just cast me, a volatile sophomore, in a significant role in the one-act contest play. His exhortation to the lucky ten on the cast list: "Stay healthy!" Getting in a car wreck did not constitute staying healthy.

I crash my worthy Bug, and my first thought is about putting the show at risk and letting down my director and my fellow actors. That demonstrates the extent to which Doc Miller inspired us to take theater seriously.

I was in seven plays with Doc. For three winters and four springs, my sense of time was defined by play rehearsals. One-act meant 6:30 a.m. rehearsal in the dead of winter. Spring play meant 7:00 p.m. rehearsal, usually for three hours, sometimes longer. No one came late (or they paid a nickel a minute if they did). In those wonderful days before cell phones and texting and obsessive connectivity, we immersed ourselves in the show. Doc drilled professionalism into us so much that, during our senior year show, Snoopy, my girlfriend Tricia wanted to come backstage and say hi during intermission, and I told the assistant director to send her away. I was in character and couldn't be distracted, even by the cutest Madison girl I ever dated.

Doc drove us hard. We learned our lines, our notes, our blocking. We learned you never, ever, ever break character. We learned that everyone in the audience, especially the little granny with her failing hearing aids in the back row, deserves to hear every word in the show.

We learned that the show is bigger than any one of us: the show exists for the audience and the community, not the players. One moment when Doc helped us understand that came in April 1988, when we were rehearsing Godspell. We come to the Last Supper, where the show makes its final turn from lightness and fun to real drama. There I am, Jesus, handing out the bread and wine and saying goodbye to the disciples. Nancy Edwards is leading Chris Beyer and the pit band in "On the Willows." After a month of read-throughs, blocking, and struggling, one of those magical theater moments happens: everyone of us—Denise, Meredith, Michell, Amie, Chris, the whole crew—realizes the profundity of the moment we are enacting. To the extent teenagers can understand that historical and spiritual moment, we understand it. We live it. And our only audience is Doc and our tech people.

The tears flow, we get lost in the emotion. As teenagers are wont to do, there was no small amount of "Oh, look at us! We're all emotional, so we must be real actors now" going through our heads. When Doc spoke to us (and I can't recall for sure whether he waited until notes at the end or if he had to speak to us right after that scene, if we needed a minute or two to collect ourselves), he channeled that emotion in the right direction. He told us that real emotion was great, but that we couldn't let it control us; we had to control the eomtion, make it do what we wanted. Feeling that emotion ourselves wasn't the sign of good acting; our job as actors was to make the audience feel it, fresh and new every time, even though we would have felt it over and over in rehearsal. Real actors do the work to serve the audience, to give the audience the tears and the joy that theater can create. That's what we learned from Doc.

When he directed me, Doc Miller was in the first half of his career, working wonders in a poorly designed auditorium with a sound and light system that has delivered more jolts than South Dakota's electric chair. He was surrounded by a cluster of dedicated artists on the MHS staff. Nancy Edwards directed two big choirs helped Doc with three musicals in four years. Eric Haenfler was leading the Madison HS band. Jill Frederick was teaching six art classes. Gail Means led her teams to every interp and debate tournament on the calendar. They were all intense, passionate about what they were doing, and their intensity drove students, including a number of kids from whom you might not have expected it, to create real art worthy of something a little better than polite applause from our parents.

Now Doc has directed over 70 shows, 70 different groups of kids who have earned something more than polite applause. 21 of those casts have earned State Superior One-Act awards. And perhaps the most important thing Doc taught all of those casts was that the show is their baby. When showtime comes, Doc can do nothing but stand in the back of the house and pray. There's no calling a timeout, changing the defense, or substituting the second string. The director steps aside, and the show belongs to the kids, who have one shot to make two months of rehearsals pay off. Doc's directing has always given students an incomparable lesson in personal responsibility.

Even in Doc's relatively early days when I was in MHS Theater, Doc would often say he was done doing big shows. He would vow that his next show would be The Creation of the World, featuring two actors, a ladder, and a snake. But he kept coming back with big shows, finding room for every student who was willing to do the work on stage, in the chorus, and on the tech crew. He wanted every student to have the chance to experience theater, learn that awesome responsibility, and serve the community through art.

And now that directing is done. Doc's kids have served the community one more time, with two presentations of The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf, a fine finale for the children of the community. Doc oversaw one last set strike last night and turned the kids loose. It's not a sad moment. Doc leaves the director's seat by choice, knowing he has another dedicated director, Ms. Anne Elisa Brown, to whom to pass the clipboard. He leaves knowing he has done great work for much longer than most people stick with any single job. And he'll still be in the classroom, teaching the most challenging English courses at MHS. He'll just have a little more time outside the classroom to enjoy his family, friends, and great books.

When I asked Doc about his retirement when it hit the school board agenda a couple weeks ago, he said he didn't want any hoopla. I can respect that. When you're directing a show, you have all the drama you need up on the stage. You don't need any foolishness to distract from the show.

But now, with the set struck, the stage swept, and the kids all sleeping in from the cast party, I'm happy to pay my respects in writing (a risky thing to do when praising a great English teacher).

Doc, you made an impression on me. When I directed plays at Montrose, every direction I gave could be traced back to guidance you gave me on the Madison stage. When I think about good pedagogy (recall the Greek etymology, leadership of children), I think about your directing, as well as your classroom. You held your actors to high standards. You drove them hard, though never harder than you were willing to drive yourself. You laughed enthusiastically, critiqued vigorously, occasionally blew your stack. You got emotional with us... and that's o.k., because emotion shows that what you're doing matters. You showed us theater was worth getting emotional about, and you showed us how to control that emotion and turn it into pretty good art.

Thank you, Doc, for not blowing your stack after I rolled the Bug... and for scaring me enough to think you would. Thank you for teaching us well, and for serving the community.


  1. Thanks for this great tribute to a great teacher and director. I did five shows with Doc and I too felt an immense respect for the man and appreciated all he taught me.

    I remember one particularly rotten rehearsal we had leading up to the opening nights of Midsummer Night's Dream. Everyone on stage during the rehearsal knew that we had had a bad night and were waiting for Doc to read us the riot act during critique. Instead, he didn't say anything and just sent us home, which was far worse than the yelling we'd anticipated. The man knows how to motivate like few others, and my memories of being in theater are some of the most treasured I have.


  2. Good luck, Doc Miller! You have had a positive influence on so many students!

  3. I was honored to be in 8 of Mr. (he told us we couldn't call him "Doc" until we could buy him a drink) Miller's productions. While some of his classic lines seem to have been recycled throughout the years (little white haired lady with the hearing aid, 2 man show, yada yada yada), I absolutely credit those lessons as milestones in my personal growth- learning how to channel preparation and passion, mastering the art of shared responsibility, etc.

    Well, MISTER Miller, I'm 21 now. Perhaps we could gather the old Wiley cast for a round or two over the summer. Maybe chant a couple "how now brown cow"s ...

    Molly McGrane


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