Theater teacher Barb Dignan looks back … and ahead

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“Les Miserables,” “Aida,” “Legally Blonde,” “Doubt, “ “Amadeus,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Seven Guitars,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and many more … Barb Dignan mounted more than 35 Broadway-type productions in her 13 years with Highlands Ranch High School’s drama department, plus some created by students in her classroom. Her only repeats were “The Crucible” and “Dracula” because the kids wanted them.

The choice of shows each year depended on the particular talents available among her students, but they also were a vehicle for education. “Amadeus,” for example, taught 100 kids about Mozart, she commented.

And the two August Wilson plays, “Gem of the Ocean” and “Seven Guitars,” taught students, both white and black, about this great African-American playwright. Dignan found that the black kids didn’t know his history and she wanted them to know him.

She is proud of students who went into theater careers: a lighting designer on Broadway and others in tech programs. A number of former students are working in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, and one is with Showtime sports entertainment.

Another teaches high school theater on the East Coast, and Dignan counts an associate producer on Broadway among her former students.

Six graduates were accepted to the University of Northern Colorado’s prestigious acting program, with one full-ride scholarship. (The program only accepts 30 new graduate students a year from as many as 2,000 applicants.) Two more from the 2013 class have been accepted.

Jan Wilusz, a good friend who started creating costumes when her own child was in Dignan’s productions, held a surprise retirement party where alumni came from near and far — some even flew in.

As Dignan retires, her love of theater is undiminished and she dreams of starting a local theater company. She doesn’t plan on large-scale musicals. “I want to do small shows with good scripts, a good story,” she says, and is certain there will be interested participants among the many former students in the area. “We will need corporate help,” she realizes, and she will need to find or create a venue — hopefully somewhere in Highlands Ranch.

She has a collection of costumes and props she personally paid for in the 13 years she produced theater at Highlands Ranch High School, and she speaks especially fondly of props. If she were to go another direction in the theater world, it would perhaps be props.

Dignan was discouraged as a young person from studying theater, although her mother was a German actress. She graduated from Georgia Southern in special education and used creative energy in crafts when a young mother with babies.

She first taught special education and ninth-grade English at Highlands Ranch, while taking theater classes at Denver Center Theatre Company and at University of Northern Colorado in the summers. After predecessor Wally Larson retired, she began in the theater department, building a department where the students came to hang out as well as act and learn technical theater.

“There is nothing I could have loved more,” she declares. She has 500 Facebook friends and she hopes they and other interested people will contact her about starting that new theater company in Highlands Ranch. (Barbdignan@gmail.com, 303-803-8182.)

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