Before school, after school and on Saturdays, Stone Bridge High School students head to teacher Glen Hochkeppel’s classroom.
Some of them bring backpacks of clothes, makeup and other supplies and leave them there with plans to attend class first and come back later. Others come for a short while, attending one of Hochkeppel’s year-long drama classes, ranging from level 1 for beginning theater students to level four for advanced students.
“This is our house,” one of his students said.
Hochkeppel teaches in a black-painted room with couches and desks scattered about and stage lights hanging from rafters. Called the black box theater, Hochkeppel teaches in what he calls “a small intimate space” and an “experimental space.”
“It’s so completely malleable. Whatever I need it to be, that’s what I set it up as that day,” said the head of the school’s drama department, Running Dog Productions. Hochkeppel uses the theater for a classroom, script readings, in-class improvisations and round-table discussions. His classroom space extends across the hall to the auditorium where a half-complete set for “The Little Shop of Horrors,” the theater department’s upcoming spring musical, is kept.
TWO YEARS AGO, Hochkeppel had a list and a purchase allowance to start a theater department for Stone Bridge High School. Before the school opened in the fall of 2000, Hochkeppel bought tools, lumber and other supplies the students could use to build stage sets. His mother gave him a set of used costumes from Darling Productions, a dinner theater she owns in Boston, Mass.
Hochkeppel still needed a department name that sounded professional. After talking with a friend of his, he decided on mentioning the school’s mascot, a bulldog, and the word "run" used in a variety of ways in theater. There is the run of a show, or how long it’s playing, a run-through or rehearsal from start to finish, and the running crew that carries out the show.
“It was a very intense first year because people didn’t know each other at the beginning,” Hochkeppel said, adding that without a senior class the first year, the younger students had a more egalitarian chance to take on lead roles and a variety of production roles.
This year, Hochkeppel has 108 students in his classes and 40 students who participate in every show and another 70 students who perform on an occasional basis. He treats the department as a professional company and his students as adults, he said.
“From my point of view, I try to be as open to student ideas as possible,” said Hochkeppel, an eight-year veteran of teaching and a Sterling resident for nearly three years. “The kids have taken it on themselves. … When you put a lot into it, the students put a lot into it.”
Hochkeppel lets the students do the directing, set design and productions of the spring musicals and fall plays they put on each year.
“When he says he treats us professionally, he really does,” said Dana Haun, a 16-year-old junior from Leesburg. “We began to grow into a family because it’s like a company. The auditions are treated professionally. … You leave stuff at the door. We know we’re going to get work done and do quality acting.”
THE STUDENTS insisted on joining the three-year Cappies program, a critics and awards program that sends high school students to review a performance each year from 39 participating schools in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Hochkeppel said he did not want to add another layer to the department so soon after it was established but agreed to start the program at the school this year.
“We have a voice to make this department and company as great as we want it to be,” Haun said.
Six students were selected as critics to review plays at area schools. The school’s fall production of “Nite XII,” based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will,” was reviewed by students from other schools.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to see what other high schools are doing,” Hochkeppel said, adding, “It’s nice for the kids who work so hard to get some recognition.”
A few students agreed.
“When you analyze another show it helps your own performance,” Haun said. “This department is definitely in a class of its own. … You can tell how much work goes into a show. You can tell we live in a school,” said Damon White, a 16-year-old sophomore from Leesburg and a Cappies critic. About the department he said, “It’s skills for living, what it’s like to be an adult,”
Running Dog Productions may be professional, but it also is a family, according to a few of the students.
Sixteen-year-old Heather Athey said she joined Running Dog Productions to sing, at the same time thinking, “these people would be weird.” “This department is a family,” said the sophomore, who lives in Leesburg and is one of the critics, along with Haun.
“It’s so much more than a hobby for me. It’s our life. It’s really a family,” Haun said. “It’s what we do. It’s where we spend our time. … He never says, ‘You guys have to stay late.’ It’s never do or die. ... It’s so fun, and it’s us.”
Haun is the secretary of the Stone Bridge High School chapter of the International Thespian Society, an honor society that will have about 40 inducted members this spring.