Fairfax City: Paul VI Theater Director Katherine Miller ‘graduates.’

Fairfax City: Paul VI Theater Director Katherine Miller ‘graduates.’


Katherine Miller says teaching and directing theater at Paul VI was “the best job in the world.”

After 13 years at Paul VI High, Theater Director Katherine Miller is retiring – but don’t tell her that. “I’m not retiring,” she said, “I’m graduating.”

When her children were younger, she taught part-time at Franklin Intermediate School and St. Joseph Catholic School. But when the theater teacher job at PVI opened up in 2003, she applied and got it.

“When I started, the principal knew I hadn’t taught high school,” said Miller. “But he told me, ‘You’re going to make mistakes, but just roll with them.’ And that was very liberating.”

Then, about a month later, one of her students slid into the school’s brand new podium while rehearsing a scene. “It flew off the stage in slow motion, end-over-end, and onto the floor – exploding into a million pieces – except for the school seal,” she said. “But the school wasn’t upset at me or the student. They just bought a new podium and went on, and I thought, ‘This is a good place to be.’”

Recalling her favorite PVI plays, “Arsenic and Old Lace” came to mind first. “It’s a wonderful show, we had great kids and we probably had my favorite set of all time,” said Miller. “It was beautiful – the interior of a house – with five working doors, two staircases and a full bay window with a window seat.”

She also loved “The Pink Panther” because it turned out exactly the way she wanted it to. “It’s a dumb show, but gosh, it’s funny,” she said. “Each show had its strengths and challenges, but they’ve all been fun.”

MILLER also enjoyed it when her son Jake was a student there. “He had no interest in theater, at all,” she said. “He was on the freshman football team, but broke his arm. So in the second semester of his freshman year, we did ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ in the round. The dads built an arena stage with risers on all four sides, seating 120 people, and my son auditioned for the show.”

“The people in charge of the music cast him as Linus, and I was shocked,” continued Miller. “I had never heard Jake sing before. But he loved acting and stuck with theater, all four years. He took all the acting classes and did very well – and he even won a Cappie for Best Comic Actor for ‘Pink Panther.’”

She said the toughest part of her job was the “very long hours, and it’s one of the primary reasons I decided to leave now. I still love teaching and directing theater, but I need more balance in my life. We rehearse till 6 p.m., build sets on weekends and often have Sunday rehearsals.”

Still, said Miller, “Teaching theater is so much fun. Teachers in other classrooms are working – and I’m looking for rubber snakes or swords. And it’s very satisfying seeing how pleased the students are with themselves when they do something well.”

She doesn’t lie to or flatter her students, she said. “So when I tell them they did something good, they can believe it,” said Miller. “And they know I mean it. I tell them: ‘You control what you can control, know your lines, enter on time and in character and put your props down on the props table. You leave the other stuff up to God.’”

She said it’s been wonderful teaching in a Catholic school because “The Catholic faith unifies us and it becomes a common culture. So when there are tragedies or disasters within the school family, it pulls us together and gives us great strength and reminds us why we’re here.”

So what’s given her the greatest satisfaction at PVI? “It’s nice when kids come back and remember their time here fondly,” said Miller. “I’ve also enjoyed giving them the opportunity to do live theater and, for the most part, they’re very grateful.”

Rising senior Tommy Kelleher said she taught him about improvisation and “how to physically come out of my shell. She said to act, not just for the performance, but for rehearsal, too. I looked forward to her class, and I’m sad to see her go because she’s a good theater teacher and helped me grow as an actor.”

Classmate Andrew Conley said that, as a freshman new to acting, Miller cast him in the chorus of “Guys and Dolls” and he was thrilled. “I liked having time to work on a character, and I saw how the core skills I was learning translated to a real show,” said Conley. “I’m also sad she’s leaving because she’s familiar with my acting abilities and knows where I need to improve.”

However, said Miller, “It was never my objective to turn out professional actors, but to give students a fun activity and let them become part of the community of theater. It’s like a family, with all the ups and downs; it’s real life. This isn’t pretend theater; the tools we use are real – which means they’ve got to use them right and carefully.”

She said acting before an audience can be the most exciting thing her students will ever do. “I tell them it’s like jumping out of an airplane,” said Miller. “If you’ve packed your parachute correctly and practiced jumping, odds are, you’ll be fine. And I especially like that, when we do shows with different races or ethnicities, the differences don’t matter.”

FOR HER, she said, teaching and directing theater at Paul VI has been “the best job in the world. The people are great, the school is supportive and everything I do is fun. But I’ve been here 13 years and I want to take some time off for a while and visit my mom in Northern California. My husband teaches at Marymount University, and we want to be able to travel in odd months, not just in the summer.”

Eventually, Miller might become a teacher’s aide or substitute teacher or work in a library or bookstore. “But it’ll be something with regular hours,” she said. “There are neighbors who don’t know I exist.”

Meanwhile, she’s “grateful to the school for giving me this opportunity. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had, and I feel good about leaving now because my friend, choreographer and assistant director, Kathy d’Alelio, will take over as director. So I’m leaving the program in good hands.”

Miller said she’ll “miss the kids, the classes and all the laughing we do. The teachers here – and the ones in the plays with us – have become good friends. Even the Saturday set-builds were fun. But I won’t miss worrying about things here – I’ll just find something new to worry about.”