Joy Roche never thought she would end up a drama teacher. ¶ She got a degree in English after switching from theater performance at Florida State. ¶ She made her way into the Pinellas County School District as a substitute for a drama and English teacher on maternity leave at Clearwater High School in 1989. She started with two classes. Those were full within two years. Soon, so was the drama club that met after school. ¶ Roche grew the performing arts program at Clearwater High, directing two productions a year as well as preparing students for thespian festivals.
The substitute job became permanent. She never left. Until now. Roche plans to leave her role in the performing arts department at the school, a post she has had for 26 years, but not before going out on top with an all-out performance of Disney's Beauty and the Beast Wednesday through Saturday.
"I absolutely still love it,'' she said. "I always wanted to go while I still loved it."
Productions are marked by Roche's attention to detail and ability to squeeze as much value from the costumes and set design as possible.
Performances often sell out. Some parents attend even after their children have graduated.
At a dress rehearsal two weeks before the show, Roche worked with the students through different numbers, eyeing costume and stage details. She directed the actors into optimal places to stand and critiqued other students' shoes or shirts.
"There are little costume things that we can fix tonight," Roche said to the more than 50 cast members and "costume moms" in the audience.
Rows of foam heads were set atop auditorium seats as the cast extras warmed up their voices by the piano. The colorful set featuring Belle's small house and the Beast's expansive castle was designed by American Stage Theatre Co. It takes about an hour to put on the Beast's makeup.
Roche attributes any success to the help and support of parents, faculty and staff.
Anne Marie Gaige, 39, a first-grade teacher who also runs a dance school, has helped choreograph Roche's productions for 13 years.
This is the first year Gaige, whose first show with Roche was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, has a daughter at the school. Emiliegh is one of the "Silly Girls."
Roche has a constant enthusiasm that permeates, helping to bring out the best in students.
"I think these kids grow so much through the program," Gaige said. "It's not just a high school show. It's a show for everyone to enjoy."
Roche produced the nonmusical You Can't Take It With You, one of her favorites, as the fall production this school year for the second time. She wanted to do it one more time before she left.
Typically the productions are chosen with students' input. The productions are also chosen with the actors' abilities in mind. The drama program has a diverse, versatile student cast to work with, she said. Students come from all backgrounds. Kyle Brogan, who plays Gaston, is also captain of the swim and dive team.
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All three of Roche's children attended Clearwater High as well as her drama classes. Michael, her son, plays the lead of the Beast. Roche had some apprehension.
"It's very strange going out my last year and my son is one of the leads," she said. "It's kind of nice."
Michael has grown up in the department. He was first on the stage when he was in fifth grade. The significance of his role in his mother's last production is not lost on him.
"It makes me want to be the best I can do on stage so she can go out with a bang," Michael said. "I want to be the best, especially for the last show."
Students in the program don't all want to go into the entertainment business, but many have.
"There are a lot of them who go on to do really cool things," Roche said. "Some in the business, some not."
Jenna Rubaii lives in New York City, pursuing a dream to work in theater she cultivated while a student of Roche's.
Rubaii, 25, spent four years at Clearwater High with Roche. She recently ended a national and international tour of Green Day's American Idiot.
Performing at the Straz Theater when the show came through Tampa brought things full circle for Rubaii. The first time she was on that stage was at a Florida State Thespians festival with Roche.
"She was supportive and creative and the most fun. She really created such a wonderful environment for so many kids," Rubaii said. "It was really inspiring to think about the people who've made an impact on your life. She's one of the most impacting teachers. She helped me realize that this is what I wanted to do as a career."
Rubaii said her family still goes to Roche's shows.
Roche is not sure what her next move is. She might move to be closer to her daughters in Georgia. She is considering teaching at a private school.
While she knows she will not be back, she hopes the program continues.
"You don't want to build something for 26 years and then see it crumble when you walk away," Roche said.
Jared Leone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jared_leone.