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By Terry Dean
Bill McGlynn remembers watching a school play at Oak Park's Hawthorne Junior High when he was kid. It was a fall performance of A Christmas Carol.
Watching that play inspired him to one day get onstage himself. He eventually did, as one of the first members of CAST, Hawthorne's upstart performing arts program.
"It was really cool. It snowed on stage. People were dressed up to look like they did in the old-fashioned times. It was really great," recalled McGlynn, who has been director of CAST (Communication, Arts, Speech and Theater) at what is now Percy Julian Middle School since 1997.
He's entering his 15th season as director, after taking over for the husband-and-wife co-founders, Michael and Jill Poehlman. As a performing arts program, CAST has grown greatly over the years, McGlynn recalled. He credits the Poehlmans, who retired in '97, for growing CAST into a full-fledged performance and academic program. Students now take such courses as playwriting and speech/drama, along with acting in productions. The program is much bigger than the after-school program McGlynn participated in as a kid, and the fun-yet-occasional school play he saw that first time at Hawthorne.
After graduating from junior high, McGlynn, who is an Oak Park native, returned to volunteer as a CAST summer camp counselor. The former Beye Elementary School student joined CAST in eighth grade. The year the program began, in 1985, also saw Hawthorne renamed for Percy Julian, famed scientist and former Oak Parker.
Because of his long involvement in CAST, McGlynn jokes that he's the oldest member of the program, though he's only 39. He is not the only staff member who was also in CAST as a student. Malachy Boyle, the program's staff director and writing class teacher, also attended Julian and later Oak Park and River Forest High School.
McGlynn is also an OPRF graduate, having participated in the theater program and choir there. One of his classmates was Thomas Lennon, actor and screenwriter, best known for his TV role at Lt. Dangle on Reno 911! With CAST, McGlynn says his focus is on directing and producing rather than acting on stage himself. But occasionally he performs in CAST production when necessary.
"We did Singing In the Rain two years ago and there was a part that called for an old guy and so it went to me. There were only four lines," McGlynn recalled.
Back when McGlynn was a student, he was among a handful of CAST members, who sometimes performed but mostly learned from acting professionals who were brought in to talk with the kids. His first show with CAST was called Children's Voices, written by students in that first class during the 1985-86 school year.
Currently, around 200 kids participate in the program, everything from acting and singing onstage to working behind the scenes as set designers and lighting technicians.
"The students do everything," McGlynn said, noting that some kids have worked both sides of the curtain.
In 2001, McGlynn took a sabbatical in London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for his master's degree — he arrived shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York. That was also around the time both of the new middle school buildings were nearing completion. Prior to his sabbatical, McGlynn was able to talk with architects about ideas for the theater department's space.
"The arts program is grouped in one wing. Now we're much closer to each other. And it has brought us together in what we want to offer students, in the kind of performances we want to do," McGlynn said.
Some nine shows are produced during the school year, from full stage productions to "one act" performances done in classes during the day. Three to four shows are done during the summer. Each year has a theme that coincides with productions and classroom lessons. This past school year had a 1920s theme. This year will focus on "storybook" shows, largely from children's books.
Having spent much of his life involved with CAST from student to director, McGlynn has yet to see another middle school program match what they do at Julian.
"You don't find that happening in middle school," he said. "You're more likely to see that kind of a program at a high school, but to have one that's just for Oak Park kids is pretty unique."