To go out with a bang – it’s something most people retiring from their career would aspire to, and a local high school drama teacher is making it happen.
Terry McLellan has been building sets, casting roles and putting on plays in Abbotsford since he started instructing at Yale (then a junior high) in 1978. He moved to Abbotsford Collegiate four years later, and has been there since. After 34 years, retirement beckons.
Not slipping away quietly, he is putting on his most ambitious project ever next month.
McLellan has written a play based on the children’s book “The Voyage of the Poppykettle,” after getting the permission of author Robert Ingpen. He wrote about mythical miniature people in ancient Peru who leave their land as the Spanish invade. They turn a tea kettle into a ship and set sail, encountering giant iguanas, a storm and other challenges as they search for a new home.
“It’s a beautiful book,” McLellan explained. “I liked the big idea of disaspora – the dispersement of people.”
McLellan has written the lyrics to three different songs, and had them set to music by John Fultz and Tyler Summers. A 20-piece school band will be part of the production.
He has been directing students, who have been rehearsing their roles since November.
As with most McLellan plays, there are many hands at work. Up to 200 students will have had a hand in bringing “Voyage of the Poppykettle” to the stage, along with about one-third of the school staff and McLellan’s friends from the community.
Retired woodwork teacher John Burns has been working for months building the kettle and eight other large set pieces, with the help of students.
Art teacher Carol Tsuyuki and her stagecraft class have created about 15 puppets and creatures, including birds and dolphins.
Nadia Moore and her students from Abby’s hair design program are creating wigs and looking after the actors’ hairdos.
Then there are staff who have done costumes, publicity, props, photos, posters, the program, ticket sales and more.
“We’ve always had great support,” said McLellan. “The support always amazes me – from the kids, to the staff, to my friends.”
“Poppykettle” is different from most high school plays, because he – nor anybody, for that matter – has never seen it before. There is no point of reference for a director.
“It is my most ambitious (project), because it’s original – it’s never been done before. We’re going into something that is unproven.
“Hopefully, it’s all going to work.”
Rithu Jagannath is the narrator for the play, and after three years in McLellan’s classes, she wanted to be included in this, his final act. A lot of her classmates feel the same way – sorry to see him leaving.
“I really wanted to be part of it,” said the Grade 11 student. “He’s very understanding, very creative and an overall awesome person.”
Voyage of the Poppykettle will be held at the Abbotsford Arts Centre on March 1, 2 and 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the Abbotsford Collegiate office 604-853-3367 and cost $15 for adults or $10 for seniors, students and children.
‘I FOUND THE RIGHT NICHE’
It was 1978 when Terry McLellan walked into a job interview for a drama department position at Yale secondary, to be interviewed by Jim Latham. John Travolta’s disco epic “Saturday Night Fever.” was all the rage in theatres, and McLellan showed up in a white suit with white shoes.
“I don’t know why in the hell he hired me,” he said, shaking his head.
He still reminds Latham of that interview when he sees him. But Latham saw something in the Bee Gees disciple, and McLellan distinguished himself in ways well beyond a loud suit.
He started a group called Mime-nastics, a 10-student troupe that toured and performed.
“They were a poor man’s Cirque du Soleil,” he says.
In 1985/86, Mime-nastics was invited to the first international high school theatre festival in Japan.
His program was twice invited to a U.S.-based international theatre festival. He and his students were exposed to high school productions that would cost $100,000 to produce. He didn’t have that kind of budget, but McLellan’s classes made up for it in originality.
“We would take something really avant garde.”
For 14 years, Abbotsford Collegiate offered dinner theatre at the school, putting on Neil Simon plays and a great meal for local audiences.
As he reflects on his career, McLellan is grateful, emotions just in check.
“I found the right niche with the right school. I feel blessed. I’ve always had great success working with the kids. I’ve developed some really good relationships with the kids.”