NEW TAMPA — When the lights go down and the performance starts, it's the culmination of months of hard work and rehearsals. Those performance nights, when students shine and parents rave, aren't even the greatest moments of Jas Warren's career.
The best moments for Wharton High School's drama director come unexpectedly, like when a former student called him four years later out of the blue to say thanks. A fourth-year law student, she credits Warren 's tutelage for her work with nonprofits and her commitment to caring about others.
Warren is overcome with emotion at the thoughts of his students becoming caring adults. That is the thing he wants them to learn greater than any song and dance number. "I want my students to become people who are able to stand in a room and talk, and be able to express how they feel without being afraid," he says.
To that end, Warren delved into some tough teenage issues for the one-act play Haunted, a winner at the recent Florida State Thespian District Nine One-Act Festival. The Wharton Repertory Theater Company will perform the play April 29 at statewide competition at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Process is intense
Junior Emily Morehouse is no stranger to these competitions. Wharton has been chosen for the state competition every year since the school opened 11 years ago.
Parents and students credit Warren for consistently delivering unique material and top student performances.
"The process that he goes through with us is intense," said Morehouse, who has been acting since she was a little girl and has performed with other local theaters.
"Some directors don't get into that much depth."
Students and parents describe him as tough, intense, particular.
He looked the artistic part with his tattooed arms, tie-dye shirt and ponytail at a recent rehearsal for Anonymous, the end-of-the-year show.
Morehouse hung upside down from Cirque du Soleil-style scarves and Warren wanted to see if she could take it a bit further by wrapping the scarves around her legs.
While Morehouse practiced hanging with her spotters, other students built sets.
"We're constructing platforms for bleacher seating, so that the audience will be on stage looking down at the actors," Warren explained.
Why build audience seating right on the stage when he's got an entire theater of seats?
"I thought for this type of piece, it'd be a more intimate experience," Warren said. Anything to create a certain effect for his production.
The students rehearse every day during school hours as part of the LSA theater curriculum. LSA stands for Lights, Sound, Action.
It's an elective developed by Warren that requires an audition to take the class and, consequently, be in the performance group.
In addition to his LSA performances which go to competition, Warren directs after-school plays twice a year open to the rest of the student body. The production levels for all his performances far exceed your standard high school play, parent Anne Desrosier says.
"We went to see Godspell years ago, and we were just blown away by the performance," said Desrosier, whose daughter Nicole now performs with the LSA company.
"The guy is amazing," said Bernie Desrosier, Nicole's father and also a musician helping with Anonymous. "Everything we've seen from High School Musical to Little Shop of Horrors, it's like Broadway."
End results worth it
After Nicole saw Godspell, it was her goal to get into the LSA class.
"I love expressing myself through dance and singing," Nicole said. "I wanted to be on that stage."
He may be a high school drama teacher, but Warren pushes his kids as though they are professionals. Students say the rehearsals are often demanding, but that the end results are worth it.
"No matter how hard rehearsals are, I love the feeling of being on stage," Nicole said.
Though parents and students praise his productions, that's not good enough for Warren. With every performance, he is constantly thinking he could have done it better.
The kids don't mind his perfectionist nature.
"Each thing you do is critical. Other directors I've had weren't that technical," said Nicole Cardenas, a sophomore in the LSA class. "I like how all his shows have deeper meaning."
Warren devotes each summer to writing the play for the following year's competition. He's thought about just picking one from a book. But now he's got a reputation, and he doesn't want to let the kids down.
"There's an expectation that this is who we are," Warren said.
Warren didn't always want to be a drama coach.
He started as a premed student at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla.
Then he switched to an English major.
At the same time, he got involved with community theater in Panama City and thought he'd found his niche.
He went on to major in theater at the University of South Florida. A theater teacher encouraged him to take education courses.
He ended up being the pilot student for what is now the theater education program at USF.
He taught at Brandon High School for seven years before the opportunity to have his own program came at Wharton. He and his wife, Renee', moved to Meadow Pointe with new baby Abby. Abby is 11 now and he has a son, Jackson, 4.
"I love this community," Warren said. "I've had great parental and administrative support that's allowed us to do challenging material that makes people think."
He's written about AIDS, JonBenet Ramsey and the Columbine tragedy. For Haunted, inspired by the book Post Secrets, he had the students collaborate by writing about the secrets people keep hidden.
Little bit of everything
The 40-minute play tells the story about a group of teens who struggle with an eating disorder, heartbreak, drugs and alcohol and suicide.
"I want the audience to feel something, to care about the material," Warren said.
The structure of Warren's one-act differs from the norm.
While most other schools come to competition with a standard play, Wharton's is always synthetic fragment style, which means it's got a little bit of everything.
The play incorporates different art forms including music and dance.
"There's a lot of different things going on at the same time," Warren said.
Warren tackles ambitious projects and themes with his plays, but his own ambitions are simple: to teach kids to care.
"Teaching is like giving someone a present but you don't get to watch them unwrap it," Warren said. "You don't know if they'll like it or ever use it, but you hope they do."