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Drama doyenne takes the stage

Mercer Island High School drama teacher and theater director Karen Campbell is retiring from teaching this June. For her final production, she has taken on a part in the MIHS performance of
Mercer Island High School drama teacher and theater director Karen Campbell is retiring from teaching this June. For her final production, she has taken on a part in the MIHS performance of 'Jacques Brel.'
— image credit: Contributed Photo

After 13 years of directing from behind the scenes, Mercer Island High School drama teacher and theater director Karen Campbell will retire this June. But before she does, she’s stepping in front of the curtain for the first time to perform alongside her students in the spring musical, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which runs through Saturday. It will be her final production.

“Jacques Brel,” a lively musical revue that first opened off Broadway in 1968, has long been one of Campbell’s favorite plays.  David Duvall, music director for several MIHS productions, volunteered to direct it as a farewell tribute, then coaxed her to perform.  He also recruited other theater professionals, giving students an opportunity to learn from the pros.

The idea of singing in front of an audience was both exciting and intimidating for Campbell, who had not performed publicly for decades. Born to parents who were both professional singers, she has been singing her whole life and debuted professionally on Memphis TV at the age of six. She was on track to become a professional singer, like her parents. But in college at the University of Washington, her passion turned to teaching drama to high school students — and she’s been doing it ever since.

Since coming to Mercer Island in the late ’90s, Campbell has built a reputation for doing unexpected shows that both entertain and challenge social mores.  She produced more than 40 plays — twice winning best director at the Fifth Avenue Musical Theatre Awards. She wrote original scripts, adapted classics and even produced an original soundtrack written by one of her students.

Campbell also designed and sewed almost every costume for almost every show — often making 20 to 30 elaborate costumes for each production. She would sew around the clock to get them finished by opening night. But her biggest impact was on the students whom she taught, prodded and mentored. “I love seeing the shy, self-conscious kids blossom into poised, confident individuals who can stand in front of an audience and create theater magic.”

Not surprisingly, Campbell hopes to retire in Ashland — where she has taken her students on theater immersion trips each year. She plans to raise chickens, grow vegetables, continue quilting and “go to the theater as often as I can afford it.”

See the show

Just three more performances remain of “Jacques Brel,” this Thursday through Saturday, May 12-15, at the MIHS Performing Arts Center.

Tickets are $10 in advance at Island Books and from cast members, and $15 at the door.

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