Stage Coach

Tom Fulton spent more than three decades acting, producing and directing in Cleveland theaters. But only as the director of the Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy — an acting school for high school juniors and seniors — has he found his most satisfying
Tom Fulton leans back in his chair, stretches his legs toward the stage.

The director of the Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy looks a bit like Shakespeare crossed with Santa — his balding head ringed with wispy white hair and a close-cropped beard.

Onstage before him, students Siobhan Carroll and Patrick Mooney are rehearsing their assignment: a scene from Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in which Lopakhin, a peasant-turned-businessman, and Varya, whose family is forced to sell its cherry orchard, can't bring themselves to declare their love for each other.The Russian playwright's work is notoriously difficult to perform; the real action is between the lines, revealed through pauses, gestures, movement and tone.

"This is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the play," Fulton says. But as Siobhan and Patrick run through the scene, still reading off scripts, any emotion in their voices sounds fake.

The beloved cherry orchard is being cut down as Lopakhin tries to muster the courage for a marriage proposal to Varya. But the best he can do is small talk. It sounds like acting — the worst insult you can give a thespian.

Fulton steps in. "You're telling us too much," he says in his booming baritone. "Don't show us anything. Just wait for it. Don't put anything on. Don't show. Don't show. Just do."

Fulton turns to Patrick. Tall with a mop of sandy-brown hair, he researches colleges on Saturdays and serves as a Eucharistic minister at his church on Sundays.

Fulton gestures toward Siobhan. Her mother was born in Ireland, and Siobhan has the pale, delicate beauty of a young Meryl Streep.

Fulton looks back at Patrick and asks an almost unthinkable question: "Is she pretty? Could you imagine her being your wife?"

A few laughs escape from the students sitting around the stage, but Patrick doesn't deflect or joke. He doesn't say that if he were his character, he could see it. He doesn't play it cool and throw out a casual "sure."

Instead, he stands up straight and looks at Siobhan. She is staring at her hands, clutching the script, but he doesn't look away.

"Yes," he says softly.

They do the scene again. Siobhan, who is searching imaginary dressers and shelves to find the nameless thing her character claims to be looking for, says she is leaving for a job as a housekeeper.

"That's in Yashnevo," Patrick responds. "It must be 50 odd miles away from here."

"So," he says, pausing a full 10 seconds, during which he stares at Siobhan with barefaced longing. "Life has ended in this house."

He is vulnerable — in the scene and in this dark theater where class is held. He knows what it's like to be mocked, but he also knows it won't happen in this group of 18 kids from nine different high schools.

The class applauds.

"I saw your face," one student says to Patrick. "It was amazing."

Fulton agrees. Something real happened. "If we take the time to see each other, we have time to see the humanity in the scene," he says.

It's this kind of Fulton-propelled talent that can be unsettling to parents. Sure, they want their children to do well in school. But do they want their daughter auditioning and waiting tables in New York City? Do they want their son playing a doctor on TV instead of becoming one? Do they want to spend tens of thousands of dollars for their child to study theater in college?

And yet the parents of 54 high school students in 10 well-heeled eastern suburbs have eagerly placed their children at Fulton's feet to study acting during their junior and senior years of high school at the Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy, which opened in 2008 as part of the Excel Technical Education Career Consortium.

The idea is to give students a head start on their careers — options include acting, culinary arts, engineering, business, construction and more — by devoting their mornings to traditional classes and their afternoons to Excel Tech programs, all of which are college prep.

What Fulton is doing is certainly impressive, not just some warmed-over high school musical. More than 100 kids applied for 33 open slots this fall. One family even moved from Bay Village to Chagrin Falls so their daughter could attend.

His academy will put on eight productions this year, including Macbeth and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, neither of which he has ever seen another high school attempt.

One of Fulton's former students is studying theater at Yale. Another reported that one of her college theater teachers told the class, "Probably none of you have ever heard of Chekhov." The year before, Fulton's class not only talked about the playwright for hours, they staged a production of The Three Sisters.

But there's more: Fulton's really promising the holy grail of modern parenting. It's the very thing every parent labors to achieve from infancy with nonstop praise.

It is confidence.

"We use theater as a vehicle to be a bold and courageous person," Fulton says. "Someone willing to be themself. Someone who does not bow to peer pressure."

It has worked. One of his students found the daring to perform despite her epilepsy. Another escaped her alcohol-induced spiral and has been sober for a year. Then there are the more everyday examples of happier kids motivated by their art.

The irony is that Fulton never wanted to teach high school kids — too self-absorbed, not serious enough. His highest ideal was always a community of actors working together to put true emotion on the stage.

But the kids have changed him as much as he has them, reviving him after eight years spent with his hands on a keyboard instead of a script.

As Fulton's wife, Kathy, says, "He came alive again."


Fulton grew up in Bainbridge with a serious bent from the start.

The oldest of six children, he was not the stereotypical attention-seeking child that becomes an actor. Mostly, he was just looking for a little quiet from his bustling house.

"I didn't have a lot of friends," he says. He liked to fish for walleye and smallmouth bass. He liked to hunt for pheasants, ducks and rabbits. He lost his interest in that years ago, though, and now only shoots animals with a camera.

Fulton's dad wanted him to be an athlete, and he tried. But he sat the bench. When he did his first real production, Babes in Toyland for the Heights Youth Theatre at age 15, he found the people to be "fun, open, accepting and generous." He wanted more.

He spent his senior year of high school studying at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Mich. There, he played Potemkin in the Tom Jones musical Celebration. It was a big role, and it convinced Fulton that he could do even more.

It became a certainty for him that he would make acting his career. "Something happened," he says. "I began to see myself as an adult on a mission. It was a real sense of entering a whole new universe."

Fulton chose Southern Methodist University in Texas for its strong theater program. When he graduated, he had no driving ambition to be on Broadway or go to Los Angeles. He just wanted to act.

He returned home and heard about "an amazing little theater" in Cleveland Public Hall. A vision formed in his head.

"The thing that got me was the idea of an ensemble," Fulton says. "The actors developed a rhythm like a football team, so when they got on stage, there was an intimate knowledge that allowed spontaneity to happen much more easily."

He had the gall, at age 24, to request a meeting with then-Mayor Ralph Perk to ask if he could use the theater. Perk not only said yes, he helped Fulton arrange the financing.

Fulton's Center Repertory Theatre opened in 1976 and scored several critical successes, including an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The theater company closed when Dennis Kucinich became mayor and killed the funding. "I was pretty naive about politics," Fulton says.

He quickly regrouped and went on to found the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble in Cleveland Heights, where he was able, once again, to create a community of actors. This time, though, he required anyone who wanted to audition for a play to train with the ensemble. They had classes three times a week and rehearsed every day.

At first, it worked. The actors trained together, worked together and hung out together at the Knotty Pine, a nearby bar where they unwound after performances.

For a while, Fulton had everything he ever wanted. The ensemble reached its zenith, in Fulton's opinion, with its performances of Marsha Norman's Getting Out and Chekhov's The Three Sisters.

And then it all collapsed.

Ultimately, requiring actors to train proved to be a mistake. There were lots of talented actors who Fulton says would have "brought fresh life and insights into the works" who couldn't audition. The ensemble withered and then folded in 1984.

For the next decade and a half, Fulton worked full time acting, directing and teaching acting. He has performed in 35 productions, including the roles of King Lear, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and Doc Gibbs in Our Town. He directed 47 productions, including six by Shakespeare and five by Chekhov.

"I just wanted to do shows," he says.

He still loved the acting but found it grueling trying to hold theater companies together. He thought he'd never again find the community of professional actors that had so energized and inspired him.

But a church solo changed everything.

In 1995, while Fulton was in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, he was invited to sing at the Federated Church in Chagrin Falls. Kathy Hardesty was singing in the choir that day, too.

"We were simpatico right off the bat," Fulton says. "Her incredible wit and sense of humor, ... it was very clear in her from the beginning."

But she also came with a costume closet of baggage. Hardesty's husband had committed suicide several years earlier, and she was raising three daughters, the youngest of whom was only 9, on her own.

"He was amazing, just a rock," Kathy says. "Having never had any children of his own, he just instantly knew how to be."

The two married in 1998, and Fulton realized it was time to do something he never could have imagined: He took his first real job outside of acting.

After years of teaching himself Web development as a hobby, it became the logical career path for him. Fulton applied for a job as the director of Web development at Case Western Reserve University. Although he had no experience, he landed the job by showing his interviewer an entirely new mock website he had designed for Case.

"I always thought of Web development as theater," he explains. "It was always like, How am I going to present this play? How am I going to get people to the right spot?"

He initially enjoyed the work but got to a point where the drama had gone out of it. "You get tired of making links," he laughs.

He had gained one love, Kathy, but had lost his other, acting. He'd become a family man with benefits and stability. "I told myself I would be content with doing it part time. It turned out to be not true," he says. "It's all I kept thinking about — how I was going to get something else going. I couldn't get it out of my system.

I missed the theater all the time," he says.


If you would have told Fulton 20 years ago he'd be here, sitting on a wing-backed armchair in his office in a school, he wouldn't have believed you. "I wanted to work with professionals," he says. Teenage actors, he assumed, would be capable of little more than musicals and parties.

While working as a Web designer in 2006, Fulton was invited to join the committee that planned the Academy and its curriculum. The theater would be built in Chagrin Falls, but as a part of Excel Tech, students from the consortium school districts of Aurora, Beachwood, Chagrin Falls, Mayfield, Orange, Richmond Heights, Solon, South Euclid, Shaker Heights, Lyndhurst and West Geauga would be eligible to attend.

First, it was the brick-and-mortar stuff that got to him. A brand-new 750-seat auditorium was going up, along with a smaller 150-seat theater, the kind of intimate space perfect for Chekhov.

Then, it was the attitude. For years, he had fought, like all theater groups do, for resources. Now, he saw there were plans to get all of the tools the kids would need to build sets. They even sprung for the laser sensor on the saw that would automatically shut off the machine if a finger got too close. The sound system, the lighting ... everything was quality.

Finally, it was the opportunity to teach. There was a big difference, he began to realize, between an after-school drama program and an in-school academy that drew the most talented students from nine different high schools. They would have two and a half hours every day to train.

Maybe, he thought, it wouldn't be just South Pacific and Grease. They could do Shakespeare. Maybe even Chekhov.

Slowly, as he saw the vision for the academy being realized, an older vision resurfaced. It was the dream, reached ever so briefly with the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble — a community of actors working together.

Could high school students be serious enough? Dedicated enough? Obviously, they wouldn't be on the level of professionals, but was there hope for real talent?

It was one good sign after another. "I suddenly saw what it could be and how much passion I still had for making something like this work," Fulton says.

He quit the committee and applied for the job of director. He was chosen.

"I love their energy," he says. "There are mornings when you don't feel like getting up. Then I remember the kids are going to be there. When they discover something, ... the way their eyes light up. It's everything you want of the theater."


Fulton's students sit in a circle. One boy is barefoot. Two girls hold hands. They all call him Tom.

Today, there is a discussion over what to do with the coffee pot, initially brought in as a prop and then put to use.

"I'm not sure on what the ruling is, if I'm supposed to be letting you have coffee," Fulton says wryly. "It's kind of a drug."

It's probably safe to say none of this is allowed in calculus, but there's a critical difference. "They have to trust me," Fulton says. "If they don't, they won't be able to bring true emotion to the stage; it would make them too vulnerable."

As he had feared, many of his students are fairly self-absorbed, but their problems aren't the kind of prom-and-popularity dilemmas he anticipated.

Alison Sheppard is quiet and boho chic — long bangs hide her eyes and she wears a chunky knit cap — but she's been terrified since her epileptic seizures became chronic last fall. "I never thought I could go to normal school ever again," she tells her class one day. The thought of convulsing on the lunchroom floor was too much for her.

She applied for the academy last year, a risky move for someone worried about public seizures. But acting has allowed her to examine her fears and quell them. Her epilepsy now takes a back seat to her ambition.

Every student in the academy has a story.

Laurel Gehrisch is a pretty, blond senior dead set on Broadway. When she auditioned to be Lady Macbeth in the big spring production, she drew on her past to invoke the feeling of impending insanity, a pretty heavy emotion for most teenagers.

Laurel, unfortunately, could relate. She started acting when she was 8. As she got older and entered high school, she lost her passion to a new one — drinking.

Laurel kept drinking right through her first semester at the academy until she finally "realized what I had right in front of me." Not wanting to waste her opportunity, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober a year. She also got the part. This May, she'll play Lady Macbeth.

"You can't act without getting to know who you are," Fulton says. "When you solve an acting problem, you'll solve a life problem. You are the instrument. You can't help but find out something. You can't help but vibrate."


When Fulton's senior class is asked how many of them plan to pursue acting as a career, all but two of them raise their hands. So, for all the talk about how acting is just a vehicle and how acting can improve a person in ways that have nothing to do with the stage, these kids want to make acting their career. Three of the kids are determined to try Broadway. Five plan to go into film. The rest are unsure how their dreams will play out.

Fulton never focused on "making it big." For him, acting was enough. He did travel to New York City several times after college to audition, but once he opened his Center Repertory Theatre, he was done with New York.

"I found the incredible artistic opportunities and challenges as an artistic director far outweighed the lovely fantasy of living in a hovel and eating black bread in a postage stamp apartment in New York City waiting for the happy accident of fame," he says.

This is what he tells his students: "If you do become a star, good for you. But if you don't become a star, it doesn't mean anything. ... We can't get into the mindset that unless you're a star, you're not a success."

Fulton makes it a point to stress to his students how daunting auditions can be. Everybody is attractive. Everybody has talent. You can't beat people on either count. Your only chance, he says, is to be yourself. "You've got to know how to be you because you're the only unique thing in that room."

While some of the students' parents have reservations about acting as a career, they are also thrilled to see their kids so happy.

Patrick, the student who acted the scene from The Cherry Orchard, used to have trouble reading. Because of this he was, of course, relentlessly teased. His mother used to assure him that it would work out, but nothing changed until Patrick began acting.

Picking up a script — an intimidating hunk of often-archaic language — is hard. But he knows he needs to not only read it, but also get his character right. So he pushes on. By now, he figures he's read more plays than novels. It gets easier every time.

His mother, Kathleen, watched her son play Peter this summer in Jesus Christ Superstar. "I couldn't believe that this was my son doing this," she says. "Everybody was crying. For him to be able to bring that to the audience, ... how wonderful."

Laurel's mother, Keira, tracks her daughter's college applications on a spreadsheet. The fact that most of the kids plan to go to college before pursing their dream helps many of their parents accept the risks. It helps Keira more to see how Laurel has changed.

"She's learned more about herself through acting than any other experience," Keira says.

Fulton knows that not all of his students will become professional actors. But they will all leave his program better off.

"One thing they'll have for sure is the courage to create," he says.

In return, Fulton is getting a second chance to achieve his vision, and he has infinite faith in his students' dedication.

"What I found was that I really like working with people who love to work," he says. "And I have never found a more hungry, more passionate group of people than these people right now."

The Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy 2010-2011 Season

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