(Dec. 19, 2014) Frostburg State University is producing a documentary about Stephen Decatur’s Children’s Theatre Program focusing on the retiring director and creator of the program, Gwen Lehman.
Lehman has been teaching at Stephen Decatur High School for 46 years, where she built a prolific theatre program. The goal of the documentary is to capture the magic Lehman has brought to the school.
“Mrs. Lehman provides experiences that stay with her students and there are groups of people out there who were shaped by her,” Annie Danzi said. “And I feel the same way, she is my mentor.”
Danzi, an assistant professor in the mass communications department at Frostburg University, is the creator and facilitator of the documentary. Danzi graduated from Decatur in 1997, where she spent three years in the theatre program with Lehman.
Video cameras followed Lehman throughout her day recently, which normally consists of getting up very early, teaching and staying late for rehearsals and performances.
Lehman’s main focus was on her students during shooting, Dec. 4-7, combining her already-hectic schedule of directing the school’s production of her play, “Lazy Jack,” and overseeing filming of the documentary.
“I am just extremely excited about all this,” Lehman said.
The documentary will include footage of Lehman teaching in the classroom, interacting with her peers and directing her students backstage.
“I was exhausted from one day in the life of Gwen Lehman. She is always on the move and at one point I wanted to keel over,” Danzi said.
There will be interviews with the students she has influenced through the years, and members of the Board of Education describing the impact Lehman has had on Worcester County.
A glimpse into her home life with husband, Don, who is also a passionate educator, was filmed as well.
Most of the footage was shot by five Frostburg students over a four-day period.
Approximately 10,000 students were bussed in from all around the state and Delaware for this year’s featured performance.
Frostburg students captured the excited reactions of elementary school children as they arrived and departed from the play.
“There is a huge audience for ‘Lazy Jack’ and we wanted to capture the last time Mrs. Lehman does this,” Danzi said. “We have no idea how this department will turn out after she leaves, there are big shoes to fill.”
After graduation, Danzi said she regularly kept in touch with her mentor and would often seek guidance from Lehman. When Danzi was hired at Frostburg University this past year, she asked Lehman for advice on educating students because she was used to working in the field. When the pair met for lunch, Lehman told Danzi her plan to retire from teaching in June, which led Danzi to the idea of a documentary.
Danzi went on to explain how every tier of the education system is represented and working together for this film.
“A public Maryland university is doing a film about a public Maryland high school that performs for public elementary and middle school students,” she said.
Danzi was not sure if Frostburg students would want to be involved in this project. The students have been passionate and captivated by the documentary from the start, she said, because they never had a program like Decatur’s Children’s Theatre at their own high schools.
“Shooting this documentary was an experience I will never forget and having the privilege to work with Mrs. Lehman who is such an inspiration, was truly an honor,” said Frostburg senior Ryan Serio. “You can really create a strong bond with Mrs. Lehman and those students after spending time and getting to know them.”
Recently, Frostburg University has been encouraging students to gain real world learning experiences. The students involved with the documentary were on their feet for 15 hours a day, which is exactly like working in the field.
“I decided to participate in this documentary because the film industry had always been a passion of mine. Having the opportunity to get hands-on experience with working and filming 15 hour days in the field will give me a glimpse of what it will be like after graduating college,” Serio said.
On Saturday, Dec. 6, dozens of alumni surprised Lehman by attending the “Lazy Jack” performance. Danzi said she has been receiving calls from other alumni who either want to be involved or echo how Lehman was the most influential teacher they ever had.
“I knew some local alums would attend, but was not prepared for so many who traveled distances,” Lehman said. “One said she had driven three hours in the rain to be there because she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Also, Lehman received a long distance video from a former student who lives in Florida, which she described as “hilarious and touching.”
“I was surprised, moved, thrilled and excited. I’m not sure all those former students know just how much they’ve given me. I am grateful to them beyond my poor ability to express it in words,” Lehman said.
Danzi and her students will spend the majority of the spring semester editing their footage and hope to have a finished product by the summer. She plans on shopping the documentary to film festivals and her goal is to share the story with larger audiences on Maryland Public Television.
“The whole point is to get this story out there to everyone— educators, women and artists. It appeals to a larger audience and we will do our best to get it out there,” Danzi said. “This is a local story that has national impact.”
- The director of Stephen Decatur’s Theatre Program, Gwen Lehman, left
- and Annie Danzi, former SDHS graduate and assistant professor in the
- department of mass communication at Frostburg State University take a
- minute to pose for a picture during the Dec. 5 taping of a documentary on
- the program and Lehman.