Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

RONALD REAGAN High School Theatre: Mic Drop Moments

  • May 10, 2024

Eight years ago, Gloria Jennings Robinson, then Artistic Director for San Antonio’s Ronald Reagan High School theatre program, began a search for her replacement. She’d been developing the school’s theatre curriculum for 17 years, fostering its reputation for excellence. But now she is looking for someone to whom she’d be comfortable passing the baton.

Enter Paul Fillingim. During his interview, Fillingim thought he had no chance. “I just assumed that someone who had created a program from the ground up and was retiring would have someone in mind to replace them. Luckily for me, that was not the case!” 

Guest director Suzanne Martin, who was doing her first production (Our Town by Thornton Wilder) at the school, saw the changeover. “Robinson retired after a stellar career,” remembered Martin. “However, Reagan did not lose a step when they found her replacement, Paul Fillingim.” 

Martin praised Filligim and Technical and Business James Kaiser for maintaining a culture of excellence throughout her experience. Kaiser, whom Robinson had hired six years earlier, had already started improving the program’s infrastructure: “We instituted electronic ticketing, an online call board system, an online property inventory, and a much more functional website. The ticketing change and the website have helped increase our audience over the years.”

Since Fillingim’s arrival, he and Kaiser have forged a partnership that has brought the program to a higher level. “Both [of us] have worked professionally and have our Master’s Degrees,” said Fillingim. “We very much operate our program the way many non-profit theatres run. As the Artistic Director, I handle anything to do with acting, directing, casting, marketing, and season planning. Jim handles all things technical and the finances.”

“I Can’t Believe This Is High School”

For a theatre program in its 25th season, one would expect Ronald Reagan High School productions to run like a well-oiled machine. But patrons continually marvel at the level of professionalism. 

“The professional caliber of the performances,” said alum Lauren Jurgemeyer, “really makes Reagan Stage stand out against the typical high school theatre landscape. It wasn’t until I started covering shows at Texas State that I realized just how good Reagan’s program is. Now, working with numerous designers and production team members, it floors me how much Kaiser and Paul do on their own.”

Jurgemeyer also observed that while Ronald Reagan High School is not a “performing arts-centered high school, it is a direct competitor with those schools in the district and state.”

“We have become more competition-focused,” Fillingim admitted. Since his arrival, the Ronald Reagan High School theatre program has made it to the State Championship in UIL One-Act Play (the largest high school theatre competition in the world), “which basically means we were in the top eight of over 250 schools and we have consistently been towards the top-ranked programs in Texas. We have also sent four students to the JIMMY Awards in New York City.”

Stagecraft also supplies plenty of panache. For Titanic: The Musical, said Kaiser, “We rented the Broadway touring set, which was motorized so that we could ‘sink’ the ship on stage.” For Little Women, Kaiser rented a turntable for the stage. “I had never worked with a motorized turntable before, but it was a great learning experience for both myself and my students.” For reasons like these, alum Erin Barrera, now a sophomore in the stage management program at the University of Houston, noted, “I think what makes Reagan Stage so special is that they don’t limit themselves to the standard of typical ‘high school theatre.’ It pushes to be great and welcomes new and creative ideas.”

“We are always thinking,” said Filligim, “‘What is something that we can do that is unique to our program?’ The parents understand the value of what we teach – which is ultimately project management. The students learn how to take something that begins as words on a page and transition that into a professional quality product.” To which the typical result is “‘I can’t believe this is a high school’ is the comment we receive the most from our patrons,” added Fillingim. “We love a good ‘mic drop’ moment.”

Instilling Confidence

“I have the special honor,” said Christi Eanes, Director of Theatre for Lopez Middle School, “of being not only a parent with Reagan Stage, but an educator of so many kids from my program to theirs. I get to watch these kids literally grow up on our stages.”

Mendi Lunsford (who works as a Bush Middle School Theatre Director and is a Senior Parent and Booster) credits the work of Fillingim and Kaiser in helping her son achieve his stage confidence. “I knew it was right for my son when I met the directors. They are kind and inclusive and experienced and knowledgeable about their art. She added, “Paul Fillingim is a brilliant director and leader. He has a way of directing the students with unmatched creativity and care. The students love and respect him, and it shows on stage.”

As parents, Eanes and Lunsford feel great pride. “This year has been extra special,” said Eanes. “In my daughter’s senior year, she’s played Jo in Little Women and is Jane in Reagan’s upcoming production of Jane Eyre.” Said Lunsford, “Seeing my son on stage just absolutely makes my heart swell. He has played Romeo, Frankenstein’s creature, Cogsworth, and many more. Laurie from Little Women may have been my favorite role of his.” 

Before opening, preparation can be intense. Eanes reflected that “Reagan is particularly great at choosing its season of shows: new scripts, classic scripts, appeal to large numbers, strong community partnerships/sponsorships, developing relationships. Said Barrera, “Working with Mr. Fillingim was always a blast, even if he called us to rehearsal at 8 in the morning.”

Opening nights, however, are all about trust. “Once we open,” explained Kaiser, “there are no adults backstage. The shows are completely student-run. Paul and I sit in the audience and watch the show. Only if a problem cannot be solved or something needs to be checked at intermission will the stage manager text us. Otherwise, the students have to solve it. If they choose the wrong solution or we think there was a better solution, we will meet with the stage managers and crew heads after the show to discuss what happened.”

A Thing for Musicals

Fillingim allowed that, due to his musical theatre background, he sometimes gets carried away with injecting musical production where none was indicated, such as The Great Gatsby. “We basically made it a musical and had full production numbers,” adding, “Many of my current students cite seeing that show as the inspiration for joining the program.”
Fillingim is also fond of Titanic because it “showed our Fine Arts program at the height of its powers and showcased what I am most proud of in our programs – our ability to collaborate with the school’s band, orchestra, and choir programs.” On productions like Titanic and I Never Saw Another Butterfly, for example, Not only did this production make it to the State contest, it was also an incredible collaboration with the Choir and Orchestra Programs. There is a song cycle directly connected to the play, and we created an evening called Journey to Terezin that included both our one-act play and the song cycle.”

The Value of the Arts

“One thing about the arts,” noted Fillingim, “it is different from athletics or other organizations. No one is going to be 80 and still on the football field – but they could absolutely be in a play. Theatre,” he explained, “is a skill that can add value to your life for the rest of your life. I have worked in community theatre with people who are very successful in other fields but come back to the arts for their own fulfillment. I want to redefine what success in the arts means. It isn’t only working on Broadway, having a hit album, or being in a film or TV show – to have a successful life in the arts.”

FOCUS: A Ronald Reagan Season

Ronald Reagan High School produces six shows a year in its 972-seat auditorium: two fall plays, followed by a musical. “We consistently sell out multiple performances of our musical,” said Fillingim. “Our productions are truly part of the fabric of our community.”

There’s also a UIL One-Act Play, and then “we close out the year with our New Works Festival called The ROAD Show, which is completely student-written, acted, and directed,” said Fillingim.

The final show is a Black Box show directed by a guest director. For this year, Suzanne Martin is directing Masterpieces by Arthur Bicknell, which will be performed in May 2024.

For each season, Fillingim and Kaiser each have 250 students and a collaboration between Ronald Reagan’s Choir and Orchestra Programs. Ninety percent of operating expenses are paid through ticket sales and community participation. Said Fillingim: “We are very appreciative of our administrative team, and the support we receive from the community allows us to do shows we might never have been able to do before.”

Using LUDUS as a Finance and Marketing Strategy

“We love LUDUS,” enthused Kaiser. “The marketing suite alone was worth the switch. This was our first year using the marketing, and our ticket sales increased 10% over last year on our plays!” 

Filligim agreed: “The LUDUS site is a vital part of our season planning, learning how to program towards building our audience.” For example: “I bring up the Ludus website in my classes and show them how ticket sales are going. I explain what our budget is, how much it costs to produce the shows, and how many tickets we need to sell to make the financial side of our department work. I often look at the shows archived in LUDUS to compare to where we are on our current shows, and I communicate that to the students. During Fiddler, I would tell the cast – ‘OK, by this point last year, we had sold $2000 more in tickets to Beauty and the Beast. It’s time to get on social media and promote the show!’”