November 2, 2018
Olson’s final masterpiece
Rolf Olson pours his coffee silently and dramatically while the cast watches on. They sit, waiting for him to start talking. Everyone listens to every word he says, even when his dialogue diverts to a topic unrelated to theatre.
For 38 years, Rolf Olson has been teaching English, leading Eagle Vision News and directing musicals and plays at Eden Prairie High School. Through his years as an essential member of the EPHS staff, he has helped to create a positive learning environment for his students to thrive. In his final year, we reflect on his impact on EPHS.
Everyone who has worked with him, whether they are students, actors, technicians or teachers, say that he is one of the best people they have worked with. When he is directing, he gives students space to create while giving guidelines to steer them in the right direction. Aden Bickler, a junior who has acted in many of Olson’s productions, said, “He lets you experiment and really try things out. He lets you build the character that you want and you relate to.”
Inside and outside of rehearsal, students know they can depend on Olson for advice and guidance. Junior Elias Turner said, “He cares for everybody. He is someone you can talk to about anything.” Olson believes in every students’ capabilities and is always there to support in any way needed.
Students feel comfortable approaching Olson for advice on personal, educational and theatrical issues. Whenever there is a problem, Olson will do everything he can to help solve it. “He is always there for emotional support and he always gives the best advice no matter what,” said Bickler.
Olson always finds the balance between work and fun. In his career, he has worked on over 100 productions that surprise and amaze audiences and participants alike. Students describe Olson as peculiar, interesting and energetic. He is known for changing topics at a flip of a hat and going off on a tangent about an unrelated topic.
Not only does Olson direct the fall musical every year, he directs tech for the winter show, directs the spring show, teaches English 9 and AP Literature and leads Eagle Vision News. Olson is simultaneously everywhere doing everything, while also being impossible to find. When you are looking for him, you won’t be able to find him, but sometimes you will whisper his name and he will walk through the door at the exact moment you need him. Senior technician Molly Sheehan said, “I honestly think he has magical powers.”
One of the many things that sets Olson apart from other directors is that he is set in his morals. A colleague of 35 years, Susan Sime, said Olson reminds her of Atticus from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “He is good at what he does and excellence is really important to him,” she said. “When something goes wrong, he is so strong in who he is, it doesn’t phase him. He works with people to figure it out.”
Katie Nowak, a student of Olson’s agreed that Olson is very set in his morals, “He is really not afraid to put whatever his vision is on stage even if it is a little bit controversial.” In 2017 Olson directed “Legally Blonde” as the fall musical, which was a surprising choice to many students. The show had a few themes that some audience members found inappropriate. Olson knew this reaction may occur, but stood strong in the show he was doing and ended up directing a show that sold out at multiple performances and captivated audiences.
This year, Olson chose “Hairspray” as his final musical. Immediately, conversations erupted over the lack of diversity in theatre. Olson knew it would be a challenge, but knew it was the right thing to do. He knew this show and the themes presented are relevant to Eden Prairie High School and even the drama department.
Sometimes you will find Olson walking out of the Auditorium at an odd time of day. He said, “every time I sit in a darkened theater, and I go in there and just sit sometimes—this is a weird thing—I’ve been sitting in there and communing with all of the memories of what we’ve done in that space and every show that we close becomes a ghost.” A well known story told around the drama department is the existence of theatre ghosts. Fred and Greg, who haunt the Performing Arts Center and Auditorium, respectively, have been around longer than Olson.
Olson has been monumental in transforming the drama department and helping create the amazing shows it produces. To many students and colleagues, Olson is so much more than just a teacher or director. Sime said, “In some ways he’s like everyone’s dad because whenever he’s around, you know everything is going to be okay. I don’t care how messed up things are, if Rolf is there, everything will be okay, we’ll figure it out.”
Color, culture and curiosity combined
Each year, the EPHS drama department puts on a musical. This year, the performance is going to be a very special one because it is the last musical ever to be directed by Rolf Olson, the retiring head of the drama department. The musical is “Hairspray”, set in 1960’s Baltimore, where teenage girl Tracy Turnblad is fighting for representation and integration in the television scene. Overweight and with a warmth for everyone both black and white, she is an especially loveable protagonist who makes the production come to life.
Turnblad is an excellent dancer, but she is told she cannot appear on the Corny Collins television show due to her weight. The musical revolves around her fight for representation on that front, but due to the fact that it is all happening in 1960’s Baltimore, there are heavy racial undertones throughout the musical as well. In order to play characters of color, it is necessary to cast people of color for the musical, and Olson wants theater to be an inviting space for those individuals. “I want theater to be open, and for auditions to seem like a place where anyone can come” Olson said. Because it is his last year in the drama department, he wanted his final production to be especially meaningful in today’s context.
There are several dozen individuals working on the production besides Olson, both behind the scenes and under the stage lights. These individuals are divided between cast and crew, the cast being the actors, and the crew being the people who work on props, lighting, sound and many other things which allow the play to come together.
Junior Elias Turner, a cast member of “Hairspray” playing the role of Dwayne, had further insight on the difficulties and merits of acting. “The hardest thing is the pressure.” Said Turner. “There’s a lot of pressure because you have to do a certain amount of things in a certain amount of time.” However, that pressure can be very rewarding, both for audience members and for those in the cast and crew.
Many of the cast members in the drama department see their characters as a piece of art, more impactful than just a regular student roaming through the hallways. “After rehearsal you get this kind of depressed feeling that you’re not that character anymore. You get back, and you’re sad because you’re not this really cool dancer anymore,” freshman Reagan Pawlyszyn said. However, when the stage lights go down and the curtain is pulled away, cast members will find themselves inundated with the sense that what they worked towards was well worth it in the end.
There are additional opportunities for people to help with the musical besides acting. Junior Sophia Sailer, a member of the crew for “Hairspray” said, “Right now we are just building and organizing everything, but when we get closer to the show, we find out if we are doing sound or tech.” When participating in such a play, it is very important for cast and crew members to have their roles completely memorized, locked and loaded. Not only are they working towards a spectacle for the audience, they must also maintain harmony with their fellow participants. “The (theater) family and getting to make something that’s genuine is very important to me,” Sailer said.
The musical will open on November 9th, and continue showing through November 10th, 15th, 16th, and 17th. Ticket prices will be $5 for students and $7 for adults, unless you buy tickets online where there will be a standard service fee. “As Elias says, this show is a hoot,” said Olson.