Behind the Curtain: Retired teachers restarted community theater company, which reaches thousands
By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus
Two months before Susan Thompson retired as the drama teacher at Austin High School in 2017, she began making plans for a project to fill her time. She called her good friend and fellow theater lover Deanna Knox.
“I answered the phone and Susan said, ‘Hey, do you want to restart Dream Weavers with me?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” said Knox, who excitedly recalled the conversation.
Since that moment six years ago, Thompson and Knox, who retired in 2015 as the drama teacher at Leon Sheffield Magnet School, have reached hundreds of actors and thousands of spectators through Dream Weavers, a community theater group.
“There was already some momentum in the theater community built up because Bank Street Players (a Decatur-based community theater group) had re-formed a few years before. The idea of restarting Dream Weavers seemed like it should happen next. When you get those ideas flowing, you just have to go with them,” Thompson said.
As retired drama teachers, both Knox, 65, and Thompson, 60, know the importance of exposing children and the community to the arts.
“Theater gives people a place to belong,” Knox said. “It also teaches children about teamwork and communication and gives them confidence.”
Neither Knox, who graduated from Austin High, nor Thompson, who graduated from Decatur High, participated in theater as children.
“I have always loved to sing and was the teacher in our class play in the fifth grade, but my first community theater show wasn’t until 1980 with the Decatur Civic Chorus. It was ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and I was Dolly,” Knox said. “From that point on, theater was a huge part of my life.”
Like Knox, Thompson’s first exposure to the performing arts came through singing.
“I grew up in a musical family. I was always surrounded by music,” Thompson said. “In high school, I tried out for Decatur Civic Chorus shows, but wasn’t really involved with theater.”
Her first theatrical experience came when Decatur High staged “My Fair Lady” her junior year.
“Back then Decatur High did one show every four years,” Thompson said. “None of my friends were in theater and it was something I’d never done before, but it felt right. In theater, I found my happy place.”
Thompson’s theater education continued at Auburn University, where she minored in theater, sang with the Auburn singers and acted in plays.
When she returned to Decatur after graduation, Thompson immersed herself in the community theater scene, playing the role of Ado Annie, her first speaking role, in “Oklahoma,” opposite of Knox, who played Aunt Eller. Thompson also directed “The Elves and the Shoemaker” for Dream Weavers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of community theater in Decatur, Thompson and Knox were mainstays of the scene, performing in shows, directing and serving on the Dream Weavers board.
Their passion for theater extended to the schools.
Knox, who taught at Lakeview, Francis Nungester and Austinville, ended her career with Decatur City Schools at the magnet school, teaching drama. Leon Sheffield’s annual shows at the Princess Theatre averaged more than 150 children.
Thompson retired after 25 years as a Decatur City Schools educator, including 10 years at Frances Nungester and 15 years at Austin High.
“Deanna had an amazing drama program at Leon Sheffield and I inherited a very strong drama program at Austin High,” Thompson said. “We knew the type of talent we had here in Decatur and wanted them to have opportunities beyond the school system. That’s why we need Dream Weavers.”
The inaugural season after the reorganization of Dream Weavers featured “Charlotte’s Web” with a cast of 67, “Willy Wonka Jr.” with a cast of 105 and the patriotic show “American Made.” Those numbers brought assurance to Thompson and Knox.
“We felt pretty excited about the turnout. It was way, way above what we expected. We were amazed by how many people came out,” Knox said.
“The comment had been made to us, ‘Oh, I hope it will survive because kids are so busy these days.’ It made me scared for that first season,” Thompson said. “But from the beginning we have had so much support from the community. This was something the community was yearning for.”
For the first three seasons, Thompson and Knox directed every Dream Weavers show, working — for free — hundreds of hours to ensure, when the curtain rose, everything, from the sets to the costumes to the lighting to the acting, was top quality.
“We have a vast amount of talent within our community. It is amazing. I feel like our community is blessed and I feel like our community has welcomed and embraced theater,” Knox said.
Keeping up tradition
Some of that talent was cultivated through the original Dream Weavers theater company, which was active in the community in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Lauren Cantrell, theater director at Calhoun Community College, Macy Ladner, drama teacher at Leon Sheffield, Judith Park, former drama teacher at Decatur High School, and Courtney Kellough, former drama teacher at Austin High School, all grew up in the Dream Weavers.
Drew Sybert, who starred as Buddy in “ELF!” presented by Dream Weavers and Bank Street Players in 2022 and directed Dream Weavers’ 2021 production of “Snow White,” also has roots in the community theater group.
“I remember being in the magnet system in Decatur City Schools and they would take us to see shows a lot at the Princess Theatre. Dream Weavers was on the forefront of the shows we would see. To be able to see those types of things right here where I was growing up was magical as a kid,” Sybert said.
In 2007, Sybert auditioned for his first Dream Weavers production and landed the lead role of Troy in “High School Musical” directed by Thompson.
“It was a fantastic experience and put me on that creative career path and made me confident to go out into the world,” Sybert said. “My goal for a long time has been to try to gain experience and bring it back to my community and do what Susan and Deanna and Dream Weavers did for me. Susan and Deanna are driving forces in the performing arts in this town.”
Sybert will direct Bank Street Players’ summer production “The Little Mermaid” on July 6-8 at the Princess Theatre. Cantrell will direct Dream Weavers’ summer production “Hello Dolly,” starring Thompson as Dolly Madison, on July 14-16 at the Princess Theatre.
The next generation of theater leaders includes Knox’s niece Whitney Miles, who will become the director of Austin High’s drama program beginning July 31.
Watching the next generation of leaders in the community theater scene step up elates Thompson and Knox.
“It makes getting old not so bad,” Knox said.
“It also gives us assurance that as we back off and let someone else take over, those young people can take over. We are leaving it in great hands,” Thompson said.
“Maybe better hands,” Knox said with a laugh.
For tickets to “Hello Dolly” and “The Little Mermaid,” go to princesstheatre.org.
“If there ever was a time in the city of Decatur where somebody wants to know what the arts are like here, it is now,” Thompson said. “The casts for ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ are amazing.”
Seeing the growth of the arts in Decatur from 15 years ago to now amazes Thompson and Knox.
“Having the arts here gives a whole different element to our city, which provides so much for people that are outdoorsy. The performing arts makes our city more colorful,” Thompson said. “Decatur is saturated in all types of art. People don’t realize how much joy art — whether it’s performance or visual — brings. When you have it so available, sometimes you take it for granted. We are very lucky.”
One-on-One with Deanna Knox and Susan Thompson
Do you prefer to act or direct?
Knox: I love to act, but there is something about watching your vision come alive as a director. I wish I had words to describe it. I know what I want to see as a director, but most times, the cast members go over and beyond that. They make it come alive much more than what I see in my head.
Thompson: At the stage of life I’m in right now, I feel like my stage time is a little more limited, so performing, right now, makes my heart skip a little faster. But there is nothing like taking a book and, several months later, seeing it come to life on the stage.
What is one of your favorite roles?
Knox: Miriam the librarian in “The Music Man.” Susan directed that. Another favorite was “Grease.” My husband, Ronnie, and I did that in 1986. Kim Chaney, who is awesome, directed it. Ronnie was Roger and I was Marty.
Thompson: I enjoyed being the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Peter Pan was also one of my favorite roles.
What shows that you directed stand out to you?
Knox: “Grease.” I just really love “Grease.” It is one of my favorite shows and is so much fun with great music. I directed it for Dream Weavers and both my daughter and my son were in it. My other favorite was “ELF!” It was enchanting and Drew Sybert was absolutely amazing. The role of Buddy was made for him.
Thompson: “High School Musical” in 2007. It was brand new and we were the first group in the area to do it. Back then we were selling general admission tickets. Drew Sybert played Troy and Judith Park played Gabrielle. We about got knocked down by the people when we opened the doors. We sold out every show. It was just great. You could feel the electricity in the air.