Ditching high school for a bigger stage
CARBONDALE — At the ripe old age of 17, Olivia Savard of Redstone decided she had seen enough of Colorado’s public school system and was anxious to get on with the rest of her life, which mostly involved working behind the scenes in the theater.
So a couple of months ago she dropped out of Roaring Fork High School and went to work as stage manager for local theatrical groups, a job that she now does regularly for the Thunder River Theater Company in Carbondale, and has done occasionally for the Hudson Reed Ensemble in Aspen.
As for her immediate future, Savard starts classes at Colorado Mountain College in January, where she hopes to increase her already-substantial involvement with the college theater department.
“I dropped out of high school and graduated in the same month,” Savard said of the changes she’s been going through in recent months, explaining that she quit school on Oct. 24, her 16th birthday (students are required by law to attend school until age 16); got her driver’s license the next day; and earned her GED (graduation equivalency diploma) a couple of weeks later.
“I was, like, ‘I really don’t want to be here anymore,’” she said. “It was suffocating me.”
As her disaffection for high school grew over the past year, she added, she already had been taking CMC classes even before she dropped out, as part of CMC’s program to offer college-level course work to high school juniors and seniors. She said she did not make the decision to quit high school until the start of term last fall, and that even before that had already bought a car in preparation for making the regular commute to Carbondale and beyond.
“It was a crazy couple of months,” said Savard on Thursday, speaking at the TRTC building in Carbondale. “But I’m really glad I did it.”
Savard is the daughter of Alyssa Ohnmacht and David Savard, born and raised in this area, and she now lives with her mom in Redstone.
Over the years, few as they might seem, she already has been a dedicated fundraiser, starting when she was in the third grade and sold goods from a table top to raise money for a new building at her school, the Marble Community School.
She also has been, for the past few years, putting on benefits for the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), which raises money for research into Parkinson’s Disease, an ailment that has stricken Fox.
“It’s a foundation that I really enjoy,” she said, describing the others she has encountered as endlessly helpful and supportive, even of a young girl from a very small village, Redstone, home to 97 people or so.
Her key event for this year’s MJFF goal, was a benefit at the Crystal Club Cafe in Redstone featuring her uncle’s rhythm and blues ensemble, the Johnny O. Band.
Savard has twice been to the MJFF awards dinner, which is an invitation-only event for those who have raised more than $3,000. She said she and her partners have raised more than $13,000 since they began three years ago.
Another cause she took up was to raise money for Greg Chandler, a former valley resident afflicted with Parkinson’s, a disease that also affected one of her relatives. Last December, when Chandler was living in the Heritage Park nursing home in Carbondale, Savard brought her uncle’s band up for yet another fundraising event.
Love of theater
But her interest in theater is now consuming much of her time.
“It’s a huge passion of mine,” she said. “I love working in the theater.”
But, she said later, she also has a passion for teaching, and is set to embark on a double major at CMC, combining a four-year bachelor’s degree program in teacher education with a theater arts degree.
Savard had been involved in school plays since her elementary grades at Marble Community School, including a portrayal of Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins,” so theater got into her blood early on.
“People told me that I completely broke out of my shell with that one,” she said of the Mr. Banks role, which she was given because she was taller, and had a deeper voice, than others in her grade.
She met TRTC’s founder and executive artistic director, Lon Winston, after seeing the company’s production of “The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl, and remembered that she was greatly excited even before seeing the play.
“My mom told me I became a completely different person” as they approached the theater, Savard said — chattering on about the play, about the personnel of the TRTC and a host of other subjects.
She got a tour of the TRTC facility by local actor Richard Lyon, including a look behind the scenes at such hallowed spots as the Green Room where actors hang out, and was hooked.
She asked Winston and his associate artistic director, Valerie Haugen, if there was “anything, anything at all that I could do. I mean, I asked if I could bring water to the actors, anything to be in the building.” They agreed she had promise, and put her to work to see what she could do.
Starting out “on book,” meaning she would read along in the script during rehearsals and inform the actors of any missed lines, cues or other problems that occurred during the rehearsal, she soon started working with longtime area theatrical presence Brad Moore, who designs and works the sound and lights for TRTC. Ultimately, she was taken under the wing of former stage managers Heather Miller and Lana Karp, who showed her the tricks of the trade.
“These were people I had been admiring, seen in shows, been in awe of,” she said, looking back, “and they liked me!”
She said she had been looking for something career oriented in which she did not feel out of place, and the theater was it.
“I really felt like I fit,” she said. “Nothing felt like work, and it really still doesn’t.”
She became the first (and so far the only) junior company member, graduating to full membership when she turned 16, just after she did her first stint as stage manager on a production of “Ghost Writer,” by Michael Hollinger, and since has worked on “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, “Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, and “Unmarried In America” by CMC adjunct instructor Kristin Carlson, among others.
“Unmarried,” Savard noted, was entered in the Colorado Community Theater Coalition festival in Salida in 2012, winning sufficient accolades to send it to regional and then national competition in Carmel, Ind.
Though proud of her accomplishments, Savard emphasized, “It’s been a community effort. I’ve had a lot of people helping me along the way,” starting with the chauffeuring duties performed by her grandmother, Dana Cayton, who would regularly drive her to work at the theater until Savard got both a car and a driver’s license.
Now, Savard said, she is looking forward to a schedule of classes that begin in the afternoon, so she can work nights at the theater and sleep in the next day, and one day take her place in the working world.
“I love theater, and I love elementary-level teaching,” she said, stressing, “I didn’t quit school because I hated it, I just felt I didn’t belong there.”
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