In the span of 11 years, Woodmont High School went from having a single theater class to being one of the top high school theater programs in the nation.
But the journey wasn’t made overnight. Harry Culpepper Jr., who’s taught theater classes at the high school for the last three years, said it all started with the expansion of the program about a decade ago.
“It’s a testament to the teachers before us, the parents, the kids,” Culpepper said.
When Will Ragland became the full-time theater teacher at Woodmont High in 2008, the program consisted of one class. During his time at the school, it expanded to two theater teachers, multiyear productions, and advanced theater classes.
“Will was really the person to get the big stuff going,” said Erin Gill, who started teaching theater at the high school this year.
Now, the program is even bigger. The school has its own black box theater as well as theater tech classes — students in theater tech help build all of the sets and design the lighting for performances throughout the year.
“Those are the kids that don’t want to be on stage, but they still want to be involved,” Gill said. “We do design work, but we also build all of the sets for the shows. They build everything — they know how to cut the wood, paint, and we do sewing. All of the behind the scenes stuff.”
On May 2, the Educational Theatre Association named Woodmont High School one of four outstanding high schools for theatre education in the United States.
The school sits between Piedmont and Simpsonville in a rural area in southern Greenville County. Culpepper said only one other school in South Carolina has been honored with the distinction, and it’s been 14 years since then.
Of the four schools, two are located in Washington and one is in Kansas.
“It’s kind of cool to be lumped in with schools that have had programs for decades,” Culpepper said. “Here we are in Piedmont showing that theater can happen anywhere and everywhere for kids, and that’s really what we’re passionate about.”
Last year a student from Woodmont was accepted to attend the Julliard School — a highly selective performing arts college in Manhattan that accepts about 6% of applicants.
“Teachers dream of getting kids that go on to do big things,” Culpepper said. “I just want them to know they can do it.”
Brooke Spence is a senior and president of the school’s Thespian Society. Her favorite performance was playing Grace Fryer in the one-act play “Radium Girls,” which is about women who died from radium poisoning in the 1920s and 1930s after working in factories painting radium on clock dials.
Before she started acting on stage in high school, Spence said she used to be an anxious person.
“I got into a really shy, [anxious] place in my life. I didn’t want to do anything,” Spence said. “But then I started doing theater again, and it really brought me out of my shell. And I met some of the closest friends I’ve ever had.”
Lera Jackson, who is also a senior in Woodmont’s theater program, gets as much joy being on stage as she does in her theater tech classes, where she works behind the scenes.
“It is tight-knit, but also we welcome other people a lot,” Jackson said. “We have seniors who have never done shows before. And they’re doing their first show, and they love it as much as all of us do or more.”
For students like junior Tyler Moore, who was involved in all four of the big productions the school put on this year, the theater program is worth having a chaotic schedule. He and classmate Grace Hayes both plan on continuing their theater ambitions after high school.
“I was really bullied when I was in elementary school, and I didn’t really have any friends. And then I did theater, and I fell in love with it,” Hayes said.
And next year, Culpepper hopes to keep expanding the award-winning program — the school sold about 1,800 tickets just for the musical production of “Footloose” this spring.
“We have this huge theater program in the middle of farm country — it’s the most polar opposite situation you can get, but I think that’s why these kids thrive, because they know they are kind of the underdogs in terms of perception, and so they feel that drive to succeed and push the envelope,” Culpepper said.