Interview w/ Mr. Thompson, Drama Department

Lights… camera… action! Today we explore all that is Highland Drama with the teacher who knows our department like no one else. Interviewed by Steven, yours truly, now is the time to get caught up on all of the Drama Department lore. So, if you’re curious about how our Department has flourished like no other in such little time, be our guest and keep reading~

THOMPSON: Check, check. 1, 2.. There we go! My name’s Justin Thompson, being interviewed by Officer Steven Carrillo. 

STEVEN: (giggles) What is one thing that shocks your students when you tell them?

THOMPSON: Why is that a question for me? 

STEVEN: I think you have some shocking things to say about yourself!

THOMPSON: Well, I’m 35! And when I tell students my age, EVERYBODY thinks I’m younger! Hmm.. and what else?

(Mr. Thompson asks the students in his class this question)

JOCELYN: Your music taste!

THOMPSON: My music taste?

JOCELYN: Yes! That shocked me so hard!

THOMPSON: Hmmm… did you expect me to listen to like… yeehaw?

JOCELYN: No, no, no, no, no! 

NAS: I didn’t think Kid LAROI

THOMPSON: Kid LAROI’s Fortnite concert was Fire!

ISAIAH: See I don’t know about that one…

THOMPSON: Wha- what do you mean?! I don’t play it [Fortnite], but I watch my brother stream it! It was cool!

ISAIAH: Like the Marshmallow concert…

THOMPSON: I love those things! The Travis Scott one was amazing. I love when Video Games go meta!

JOCELYN: Oh, like when Roblox did a Lil Nas X concert!

THOMPSON: Ok, we got my music taste, my age… 

ISAIAH: And that you’re an Eagles fan!

THOMPSON: Yeah, also when students see my wife. People are like, “That’s your wife?!” 

STEVEN: (giggles) As the drama teacher, how do you feel about finding great talent and having to see them graduate?

THOMPSON: It’s tough!

ISAIAH: How does he feel about meeting me?

THOMPSON: What I’ve noticed a lot lately is how kids who are extremely talented don’t join my program until their junior or senior year and then I only get them for two years, or one year ): 

It happens every year and it bums me out how like the school culture isn’t where it’s at for drama to be a “cool” thing to do. But getting someone who is very talented as a freshman or a sophomore is a real gift to my program because then I can utilize their talents for more years than not! What I also like to see is kids who have that talent continue to use it once they graduate and not just fall by the wayside! Because I know oftentimes those in my program won’t major in theatre – of course, sometimes it is, or sometimes students will have a different major but still participate in community theatre. I love to see that. That shows that if they learned something from me, it was the passion for theatre and performing. That’s what matters most.

STEVEN: I like that! What is one thing that will always stand out to you when someone auditions for a show? 

THOMPSON: When they surprise me! When somebody who I have worked with for 1, 2, or 3 years who has just kind of stayed quiet, or stayed in their shell, but then they have this production or role they really want to be a part of and they come in and just kill it. I love to see those moments. Or the lightbulb moments for students when they’re just a natural at theatre. One thing that I don’t love about auditions, however, is when students don’t come in prepared. When they’re like, “I don’t know what I was going to say!” Yes, I may know a student and their talents already, but if they come in with no song prepared and act goofy – well, the music director and the choreographer don’t know that person! So it hinders their role in that show! Whereas, if they came in more prepared and ready they could have gotten a better role!

(This goes to show that even if you know Thompson personally, and you think he can vouch for your talent, you should always give it your all in an audition! Because others may not know what he does!)

STEVEN: Real! What characteristics or talents should someone build up if they want to join drama as a stage presence?

THOMPSON: I’m just going to tell you, you have mashed potatoes on your thumb. And it’s been there for a while. 

STEVEN: Yeah they’re cold.

THOMPSON: On record! Steven had mashed potatoes on his thumb!

I would say —- I really like for my students to have empathy and understanding. Because this is educational theatre, they’re not always going to get the part they want. And students that are willing to step back and learn and gather more knowledge and understand that there are many roles to play are more likely to be successful. Not only in my program but in life. Because in life, we don’t always get the “role” or the job that we want – or the house, or the car, or the money that we want – but if we are able to step back and learn from those experiences, then we know how to obtain them later on in life. I think one of the most important things about theatre is all of the soft skills that it teaches. So I don’t need a student to come in and know how to public speak because I know they’re capable of learning that in my class. I don’t need a student to come in with 100% confidence because I’m going to be able to teach them that in my class. I’m going to be able to teach them collaboration and critical thinking. I think empathy, understanding, and the willingness to try new things!

STEVEN: That’s great. On the flip side, if someone wants to work the tech, what skills should they work towards?

THOMPSON: I love when my acting students join my tech class! I also love when students who don’t know anything about tech join tech! Because there is an appreciation for tech that is learned. Oftentimes you’ll just see a show and you’ll see this beautiful set or you’ll hear these sounds or you’ll see the lights but just think “Oh, somebody did that.” People don’t understand what goes into “doing that.” A lot of it is creative – so having that creative mindset and wanting to build something – and yes performance does this, but there is something more tangible about building a set and being like, “We did that!”

STEVEN: It’s physically there!

THOMPSON: Yeah, and for everybody to see! Not everyone will appreciate the acting, and some will say, “Oh! That’s my best friend so that’s the best actor in the world!” but somebody can see that same performance and say, “Ehh, that was all right.” However, everybody can look at the same set and all agree like, “Ok. Now, this is epic!” 

STEVEN: I agree. Now, how has Highland in terms of its drama department changed from the moment you started until now? 

THOMPSON: Oh, brother! Let me tell you! When I joined in 2016, Highland had two drama classes – it was a beginning class and an advanced class. The beginning class had 23 students in it and the advanced course had 17. And then I taught three English classes. I took over at the beginning of the year, in September, and I was just a substitute teacher. I didn’t find out until my honeymoon, which was November 7th, that I had been hired for the rest of the year as the drama teacher! So once I’d found that out, I asked if I could do a production and they said sure! So I decided to do Hairspray. The auditorium didn’t have working lights, or really good sound, or anything… so I did what I could! We did Hairspray with about 84 students who auditioned and I cast Every Single One of them! I did this because I didn’t know if I was going to stay or leave, but I knew I wanted to continue building a program. So I decided I wasn’t going to turn away any of those 84 students. So the next year came, and they gave me three drama classes and two English classes. I had two Drama I’s and one advanced. That year we did Romeo and Juliet and Godspell. We had some solid turnouts for auditions – ~30 for Romeo and Juliet and ~30 Highland kids auditioning for Godspell. That was the year we teamed up with Garces to put on Godspell, and of the 30 Highland students, about 20 got cast! The quality got better – we got working lights. But I was still teaching two periods of English and didn’t want to do that anymore. So I got a CTE credential, which means that I’ve worked professionally in the industry for long enough that I am capable of teaching it. It was a risk, but I told the administration that I wanted all Drama classes and the next year it happened. So it wasn’t until my third year of teaching that I got a tech class. Then, I had a tech class, three Drama I’s, and one Advanced Drama. That year we did High School Musical and about 100 kids auditioned. Again, I did not turn down a single one of them because I knew I wanted to grow my program. That year we did HSM and Almost Maine was the year we won fourth place at Shakespeare Festival and first place at Spotlight festival! The next year we did A Piece of My Heart and Seussical, and we got third place in Shakespeare Fest! Last year, we got first place in Shakespeare and did Godspell and Beauty and the Beast! This year, we did Charlie Brown and are preparing for Addams Family! I will say that last year everything definitely went uphill. But this year is definitely a growing and learning year. Truthfully, the seniors now have not had a real year of school until now (SO TRUE MR THOMPSON!) because we were shut down their freshman year, sophomore year was online, and their junior year was still filled with masks and distancing. This was the first year that these students felt free reign. And this has definitely affected our performing abilities and it is cool to see true growth in my students. 

STEVEN: What is one of the most difficult productions you’ve put on and why?

THOMPSON: Each one is difficult in its own way. Like if you look at my first production, Hairspray, I had no lights, I had no working set – I had nothing – but we did it! You know what I mean? So one could say that was the most difficult one. Romeo and Juliet was the first time I had to figure out how to design lights! Beauty and the Beast was a monster – it was a hugeeee production. But truthfully I would say there were two that stand out the most. Emotionally and acting-wise, A Piece of My Heart was a very difficult show to do about all of the women in Vietnam. Nothing was extremely tedious set-wise, it was small. But it was difficult for the actors to really understand what it was like to be a woman in Vietnam at the time. I think the most difficult for me as a director would probably be Charlie Brown. This is because we had Landon Harris, a deaf actor, play one of our Charlie Brown’s and so the language barrier between us was a big challenge. And it was double cast so I feel there was no time to dedicate to truly spotlight Landon in the way I wanted to but in the end, he killed it! Definitely the rehearsal process – but every show has been difficult to do! Now, I could say it is Addams with all the people who have dropped.

STEVEN: What is the most unique production you have put on and how so?

THOMPSON: Most unique? That’s another hard one to answer! You could say Charlie Brown and having a deaf actor on stage, you could say Godspell with mixing Garces and Highland together, you could say Romeo and Juliet having it be students’ first time performing Shakespeare as a show. But truthfully, because of the magnitude of it, Beauty and the Beast. We had 54 actors in that show, a massive set, and massive amounts of music. It was just a lot! So when we were done with that, it was a nice sigh of relief. But the cool thing about it was that it was a well-oiled machine that just ran itself. Getting it to that point was a pain, though! 

STEVEN: Cool! Next, can you walk me through what it’s like to direct a show? 

THOMPSON: 90% of putting on a show is casting! Casting is truthfully one of the most difficult things because one person is going to get the part that everyone wants and everybody else’s hearts are going to be broken. I tell my students this all the time – yes, you are dealing with a single broken heart but I, as the director and teacher, have to deal with 50 broken hearts. But yes, if you cast the right people the show will fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place. Outside of casting, the most difficult thing as a High School drama teacher is schedules. Everybody wants to do a sport or an ASB thing or work and it is a pain! If everybody had a perfect schedule my shows would go perfectly. 

STEVEN: Nice! When did you first get into drama/theatre and how did you expand your interests over the years?

THOMPSON: Great question! 8th Grade! I was a troublemaker and a class clown. My mom needed an outlet for me to get my sillies out and she brought home a flier for North of the River Junior Theatre Production of Charlotte’s Web. She said you don’t have a choice, you’re auditioning for this play. I auditioned for it, it was the stupidest thing I’d ever done, but I absolutely loved it! Then I auditioned for the next one, and the next one, and NOR put on 4-5 plays per year and I did every single one of them until I graduated High School. I just stayed doing it. I did community theatre, and I did High School theatre. I just loved the art of performing and acting and singing in musicals – admittedly, not dancing, I don’t love dancing! But, when I realized how I felt about performing in High School, I really wanted to be able to give back to other students. So that’s when I knew I wanted to teach drama. And if I could even just instill the passion of acting and performing in one student a year, I knew that I did my part.

STEVEN: That’s great! Ok, we’re going to have a lightning round after this, but I have a final question — what is Highland High School to you?

THOMPSON: I think Highland, as far as performing arts goes, is a hidden gem. Highland was once underestimated and I changed that and I think now Highland, within the theatre community of our district, is a force to be reckoned with. I definitely would put us at the top of the district. 

STEVEN: Ok! Lightning round – it says thirty seconds or less but I’m sure you could do faster~ You ready?

All right. Pineapple on pizza?

THOMPSON: Yeahhhhhhhh!

STEVEN: Earbuds or headphones?

THOMPSON: Earbuds!

STEVEN: Great vocals or great acting?

THOMPSON: Oh! Great… great vocals!

STEVEN: Cool set designs or cool costumes?

THOMPSON: Cool set designs!

STEVEN: Chocolate or vanilla?

THOMPSON: Chocolate!

STEVEN: Pie or cake?

THOMPSON: Oh, pie!

STEVEN: Definitely. Cats or dogs?


STEVEN: Ummmmm *clears throat* ANYWAYS… Any final words?

THOMPSON: Small dogs are just cats and cats AREN’T cool! And, if you’re reading this article, it’s a sign to come join my program!

STEVEN: (giggles) All right! Thank you!


It truly seems that Highland Drama is only improving and adding new special pieces to their story with every show they put on. Mr. Thompson has only shown a glimpse of what an amazing and respectable show and program director is — it is all the work and dedication that he poured in that has created and continues to create a name for Highland Drama.

The department is lucky and has Mr. Thompson to thank for the many things they’ve been able to do, like Spotlight Festival at CSUB! Last week, team of Francis and Isabelle E. won the prize for best set design and Isaiah E. (cameo’d in todays interview) received recognition for best script.

From today’s interview it is clear to see that students have found a home and their community in being a part of Drama. And, to Mr. Thompson, if students can take with them even a sliver of what they’ve been able to achieve in his class, then his job has been done.

So the next time you watch a Highland Production, be sure to look out for all the small things — directors, set designs, lights and sound — that go into enhancing the performance. Mr. Thompson, thank you for revitalizing our drama department and giving your students a chance to grow as people through the art of theatre!

Please do look forward to this years Spring Production, The Addams Family!

Photographer: Jorel Ma

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