For 31 years, Robert A. Stuart has starred in his roles as theater director and educator. Although Stuart retired from teaching in 2020, he has continued to act and direct around Tallahassee.
His full circle moment happened this summer as the director of Leon High School’s “Beauty and the Beast” musical production. Stuart once performed on Leon High School’s stage as a student in the 1980s.
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“The first time I was on this stage was my freshman year and I was playing Winthrop Paroo in ‘The Music Man,’” says Stuart. “There were two students who were playing my sister in the show, the lead character Marian the Librarian. Those two women now have daughters in this show.”
Leon High School’s “Beauty and the Beast” features 47 local high school students and runs from July 8-17. While this is Stuart’s second time directing the musical, it’s his first time working with these students. He is inspired to see them come together as an ensemble both on and offstage.
During lunchtime, Stuart watched two students rehearse unprompted with their dance captain in order to get the steps correct. Meanwhile, another student tidied up the stage by putting away everyone’s props during the break.
“They’re really dedicated,” says Stuart. “A show is not just about the actors onstage. The live orchestra is made up of students and they’re all rehearsing. There’s the crew that does backstage and sound work, the volunteers who paint, the costumers. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work and I think everyone is really appreciating that.”
Stuart first exercised his musical chops as a student at the Young Actors Theatre. He shared his mother’s love for movie musicals and watched his uncle perform as an opera singer. When Stuart graduated from Lincoln High School, his mentor and choral director, Byron Smith, hired him immediately to assistant direct musicals at his alma mater.
“I assistant directed when I was 19 years old,” says Stuart, who was grateful for Smith’s continual support over the years. “He opened that door.”
Teaching ‘life lessons’
Stuart attended Florida State University and earned his degree in English and education. As soon as he completed his coursework, he headed back to Lincoln High School to teach and direct the drama department. After consulting on the new theater design for Chiles High School, Stuart took a job leading the school’s performing arts department.
In 2005, he left that position and had another full circle moment when he joined the faculty at the Young Actors Theatre. In each program, Stuart loved watching his students grow from day to day as they were character building as actors and individuals.
“I have the best job in the world,” says Stuart. “It’s rewarding to see students have an experience that changes them. It’s imperative for me as a teacher that when I’m done rehearsing with them, they leave having learned at least one new thing. You may never do a show or have a standing ovation again, but that’s OK because you’ll learn something from this show.”
Stuart’s daily “life lessons” extend beyond stage directions or memorization. Before every rehearsal he shares advice that he’s gathered throughout his career. One recent lesson asked students to cultivate their active listening skills when communicating differing opinions and viewpoints.
‘Daring to be yourself’
As a director, Stuart enjoys exploring every character’s point of view.
His goal in updating the “Beauty and the Beast” story is to honor the original plot while highlighting relevant, present-day messages. He enhanced the role of the enchantress who sets the spell on the prince and underscored the importance of Belle’s strong will.
“It’s this whole idea of daring to be yourself and that it’s OK to change yourself, but you don’t change for other people,” says Stuart. “The woman power in this show is incredible, and I think everyone can identify with Belle. She’s trying to fit in and find her way and is not afraid of making a choice and breaking herself free.”
Stuart is grateful to be able to work with an experienced team for this show. In addition to Stuart’s directing, there is music direction by Tabitha Peck, choreography by Anna Norris, lighting by Patrick Campbell, and costumes by Linda Bulecza, Machelle Thompson, Wanda Tillman and Claudia Dew.
Stuart also had the chance to work with a former Chiles High School student, Casey Blanton.
Together, he is hopeful audiences will be dazzled by the seamless production design and the students’ burgeoning talent.
“Theater, like most art, moves the human soul and makes us see things in a different light,” says Stuart. “I want the audience to walk in and see a production that is cohesive. We have a wonderful team of cast members, orchestra members, crew members. Here we are in this little provincial town, and it truly takes a village to make it happen.”
If you go
What: Leon High School Choral Department presents Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
When: 7 p.m. July 8, 9, 14, 15, 16; 3 p.m. July 10, 17. There will be a Special Preview night on July 7
Where: Leon High School Performing Arts Theatre, 550 East Tennessee St
Cost: $15.75 for tickets; $10 for preview
Contact: For more information, visit leonchorus.com
Amanda Sieradzki is the feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).
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