Michael Poehlman, 60, who with his late wife, Jill Poehlman, founded the Communication, Arts, Speech and Theater (CAST) program at Julian Middle School, died at home on June 6, 2021. For more than a decade at CAST, and subsequently leading Dominican University’s Performing Arts Center (also with his wife), he brought professionalism, love of craft, and exuberant joy to teaching the art of theater to thousands of children, parents, and university students.
“There was something golden about Michael,” said Roberta Heinrich, retired Julian language arts teacher who worked with CAST. “His way was to be fierce and gentle at the same time. He believed in people’s children and in people’s talents and in doing the work to realize them.
“Middle school kids can be a mess, and here was this beautiful, kind man who believed in them. Parents would see a child who’d maybe been somewhat sullen coming to life, blooming.”
Trained as an actor with a degree in theater from Florida State University, he began his time in Oak Park co-leading productions of Company and Peter Pan for the River Forest Community Center before he and his wife were recruited by Julian Principal Ben Williams to start CAST. To supplement the modest initial funding, he worked as a closet installer while also serving as CAST’s unpaid technical director. Sue Trezevant, a longtime friend, noted that “Michael and Jill shared a rare bond; he was devoted to her, and they complemented each other in their work and their lives.”
He subsequently directed students in shows as diverse as Romeo and Juliet, The Wiz, Wiley and the Hairy Man, and The Glass Menagerie. “If a show called for it to rain indoors, he would make it happen. If it called for the actors to fly, he would create the system,” said Trezevant. His last summer camp version of Peter Pan included performances with flying on an outdoor festival stage, built by middle school students, that was 120 feet wide, 70 feet deep, and four stories tall.
One of his talents was to bring a sense of play to the hard work needed to put up a show. “We called him ‘choreographer of the mop dance,’” said Karla Larios, a former theater student at Dominican University. “When he discovered that students didn’t know how to mop, he taught it as joyful movement. On stage and off, he brought people together into lifelong friendships.”
Following his work at Dominican, he worked as a designer, finish carpenter, and contractor remodeling houses and building furniture.
From rehearsals to tech crew work sessions to meetings, “his hands were always in the air and his whole body would come to life,” said Heinrich. “His humor, patience, and joy brought out the best in people and encouraged them to reach farther than they knew they could.”
He is survived by his many friends and the thousands of students, parents, faculty, and volunteers he and Jill worked with over the years. In lieu of flowers, a donation in Michael’s memory may be made to CAST at Julian Middle School.
In accordance with Michael’s wishes, a memorial service will not be held.