Lunch with Marjorie: No drones in Matt Mazur’s theater department

Matt Mazur has been head of theater at Hononegah High School since 2002. I decided to see what’s been going on since my daughter graduated—the spring before Mazur arrived.

“Where are you from?” I asked him at Imperial Palace in Roscoe.

“Originally from the south suburbs of Chicago,” Mazur said.

I guessed that this trim, athletic-looking man was younger than 38.

“God bless you…clean living, right?” he laughed.

Mazur’s high school won theater championships.

“What did your teacher do to achieve this?” I asked.

“Tom Sweeney,” he said. “I’d start with the man’s a genius. He believed strongly in the intelligence and capability of high school students. He thought there was nothing experienced by 12 that you won’t experience in the rest of your life…puppy love…(losing) something…grief…what it’s like to kill something.”

“Maybe south Chicago,” I defended. “That can’t be true everywhere.”

“I’d argue everywhere,” Mazur said. “Absolutely.”

He was excited about convincing me.

“You’re camping—a mosquito lands on your arm and without malice, without thought, you swat it and send it to its death. How is that different from Edmond the Bastard wanting revenge?” Mazur said.

Mazur was the first freshman in Illinois to make All State in The Diviners. He played “Buddy.”

“Wow.” I knew the play, the demanding role.

He also wrote an original comedy.

“You’re athletic?”

“I love sports, teamwork. Thanks for lunch,” he injected. “I’m a big hockey fan.”

He told me about his sporadic academics and spending two years toward a degree in theater performance, then leaving to make money.

“I did a lot of sales—electronics, vacuum cleaners, ice cream,” he said.

He took community college courses and considered cinematography.

“So, I’m working, taking classes…kind of bored…playing hockey,” he said. “I knew once I left Bloomington-Normal, I had to have a degree. The in-line hockey craze had boomed; the men’s league folded. But they still had a youth league.”

To keep skating, he asked to ref the kids’ games.

“They were stacking teams…would hand-pick good players…then take kids that just got a pair of skates and a stick…and put them on another team,” he said. “They’d beat them 20 to nothing.”

This made Matt mad. He told them to give him the team no one wanted.

“That’s a movie,” I observed.

“Yep…I’d say things like, ‘You’re going to fall down,’” he said. “‘You’re going to get hit hard. I don’t care how many times you fall down, one thing we’ll do better than any other team is we’ll get up faster. You have to be the first one up.’ I showed them how to get up fast.”

Mazur built the team’s skills and, six seasons later, coached a championship team.

By mid-1990s, parents encouraged Mazur to return to school to teach physical education. He told them that as good at coaching hockey as he was, he was really good at theater.

“Hockey, I was just winging it,” he said. “I thought I could be pretty happy teaching theater. I knew there were plays I wanted to do that I couldn’t do with real little kids. I don’t think there’s any play you couldn’t do with high school.”

We paused when he excused himself to return to the buffet.

Matt finished his degree at Illinois State in 2002 at 34.

“I was in debt…had no money…was living on my own,” he said. “Hononegah was my first job, first salary, first insurance.”

“Best part of the job—worst part?” I asked.

“The kids.” He got serious.

“The worst part is the separation between what’s said in meetings…and the actuality of what’s really happening,” he said.

“You’re not political,” I pushed.

“No,” Mazur said. “We’re about learning, doing, journeys, gaining experience, preparing kids the best we can before they go out into the real world. Do we slam these facts into them, get them to regurgitate it back out? Or do we actually experience it, talk about it, get to know what’s happening, value opinions on it?”

“I think the arts should be valued as other curricular subjects,” I offered.

“I absolutely agree—100 percent.”

He tells students that experience is different than classroom learning.

“There’s no comparison,” Mazur said. “I cannot teach you the way I can when I am directing, because you live it, experience it; you’re in it.”

“How can we convince school boards?” I asked.

“The bottom line is test scores…placements,” Mazur said. “If you look at statistics, top Fortune 500 companies—the majority require some type of fine arts background. They don’t want a bunch of drones. They want people who can think…work together, collaborate, get outside the box.”

“Will you stay at Hononegah?” I asked.

“After we placed at state, Downers Grove South called…offered an interview,” he said. “I feel strongly I could have landed that job…but turned them down. This is my home. This is my passion. This is where I am.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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