Robert A. Stuart has starred in his roles as a theater director and educator for 31 years. Although Stuart retired from teaching in 2020, he has continued to act and direct in Tallahassee.
It came full circle this summer as the director of Leon High School’s musical production Beauty and the Beast. Stuart once performed on stage at Leon High School as a student in the 1980s.
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“The first time I got on this stage was when I was a freshman in college and I played Winthrop Paroo on ‘The Music Man,'” says Stuart. “There were two students who played my sister on the show, the main character, Marian the Librarian. These two women now have daughters on this show.”
Leon High School’s “Beauty and the Beast” features 47 local high school students and runs July 8-17. While this is Stuart’s second time directing the musical, it is his first time working with these students. It inspires him to see them come together as an ensemble on and off stage.
During the lunch break, Stuart watched as two students rehearsed unsolicited with their dance captain to get the right moves. Meanwhile, another student cleaned up the stage by putting away all the props during the break.
“They’re really dedicated,” says Stuart. “A show isn’t just about the actors on stage. The live orchestra is made up of students and they are all rehearsing. There’s the crew doing backstage and sound work, the volunteers painting, the clients. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes and I think everyone really appreciates that.”
Stuart first practiced his musical skills as a student at the Young Actors Theatre. He shared his mother’s love of film musicals and watched his uncle perform as an opera singer. When Stuart graduated from Lincoln High School, his mentor and choirmaster Byron Smith immediately hired him as an assistant in direct musicals at his alma mater.
“I was an assistant director when I was 19,” says Stuart, who has been grateful for Smith’s continued support over the years. “He opened this door.”
Giving “Life Lessons”.
Stuart attended Florida State University and earned his degree in English and Education. Once he completed his college work, he went back to Lincoln High School to teach and direct the drama department. After consulting on new theater design for Chiles High School, Stuart accepted a position as director of the school’s performing arts department.
In 2005, he left that position and had another moment of coming full circle when he joined the faculty of Young Actors Theater. In each program, Stuart loved watching his students grow by the day as they built characters as actors and individuals.
“I have the best job in the world,” says Stuart. “It’s rewarding to see students have an experience that transforms them. For me as a teacher, it is imperative that when I’ve rehearsed with them, they’ve learned at least one new thing. You may never do another show or get a standing ovation, but that’s okay because you’ll learn something from this show.”
Stuart’s daily “life lessons” go beyond stage directions or memorization. Before each rehearsal, he shares advice he’s gleaned throughout his career. In a recent lesson, students were challenged to develop their active listening skills when communicating different opinions and viewpoints.
“Dare to be yourself”
As a director, Stuart enjoys exploring each character’s point of view.
His goal in updating the story of Beauty and the Beast is to honor the original storyline while emphasizing relevant, timely messages. He emphasized the role of the sorceress who bewitched the prince and stressed the importance of Belle’s strong will.
“It’s this whole idea of daring to be yourself and that it’s okay to change yourself, but you don’t change for others,” says Stuart. “The girl power on this show is amazing and I think everyone can relate to Belle. She tries to adapt and find her way and is not afraid to make a choice and break free.”
Stuart is grateful to be able to work with an experienced team on this show. In addition to Stuart’s direction, there is musical direction by Tabitha Peck, choreography by Anna Norris, lighting by Patrick Campbell and costumes by Linda Bulecza, Machelle Thompson, Wanda Tillman and Claudia Dew.
Stuart also had the opportunity to work with Casey Blanton, a former Chilean high school student.
Together, he’s confident audiences will be dazzled by the seamless production design and the students’ burgeoning talent.
“Theater, like most arts, moves the human soul and makes us see things in a different light,” says Stuart. “I want the audience to come in and see a cohesive production. We have a wonderful team of performers, orchestra members and crew members. Here we are in this small provincial town and it really takes a village to make this happen.”
when you go
What: Leon High School Choral Department presents Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
When: 7 p.m. July 8, 9, 14, 15, 16; July 10, 17, 3:00 p.m. There will be a special preview night on July 7th
Where: Leon High School Performing Arts Theater, 550 East Tennessee St
Costs: $15.75 for admission tickets; $10 for preview
Contact: Visit leonchorus.com for more information
Amanda Sieradzki is a feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital region’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).
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