Rich Copley: Lexington director-playwright Bo List juggles teaching, theater jobs

Herald-Leader culture columnistMay 10, 2014 

People who know Bo List often can find him in downtown restaurants, particularly coffee shops, getting work done on his laptop.

But this lunch spot seems different for List: The meals are served on trays, include chicken strips and mac and cheese, complemented by sweet tea, and the sound of children's voices fills the air.

List is wrapping up his first year as the theater teacher at Sayre School. He is also coming off directing a hit production of Big River at The Woodford Theatre in Versailles.

It is not where List thought he would be this time last year.

He spent the summer teaching at Stagedoor Manor, a performing arts camp in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., and then he was planning to move to New York City.

"I had determined, 'I'm going to move to New York and be a New York theater person for a while,'" List recalls. "And every time I ever say something like that, Lexington pulls me back in."

He got a call telling him about an opening to teach drama at Sayre. Former teacher Ryan Briggs had moved to a drama job at Tates Creek High School.

List was determined he would do an interview as a courtesy, but he was not going to take the job. Yet things kept moving forward, including a Skype interview he had to conduct at a McDonald's near Stagedoor because the camp's Internet connection could not support Skype calls.

"I had pictures of Grimace and the Fry Guys behind me," List says. He also got a McMuffin grease stain on his shirt right before the video chat started. He had to reposition his tie and sit awkwardly to cover it while he talked to headmaster Stephen Manella and the principals of the Sayre middle and high schools.

"I realized more and more that my New York idea was not a plan, it was just an idea," List, 40, says. "I had no money and no job, and I was just going to do it and be poor. And I thought, 'I could be poor, or I could live in my hometown with familiar people that I care about, have a job that would allow me to travel — and they were really on board with me being a theater professional, and I go direct and write and do other stuff like that; they love that — and I loved all of that."

He also was impressed with Sayre's ambitions for its arts programs, including having a performing arts center as part of its expansion plan.

"It's always been immensely valued in our curriculum from lower school to the high school," Manella said.

To middle school director Kristin Seymour, List was the perfect candidate to help the school grow its theater program.

"For me, it's the combination of the whole package: the scriptwriting, directing, acting, teaching all in one person, and we saw a tremendous amount of leadership potential," Seymour says. "We have our sights set high for this theater program, pre-K to 12. We have very talented students and we'd like them to have opportunities to show off their abilities."

Right now, the bulk of List's focus is in the middle school. But as those students advance each year, the plan is to build the high school program substantially.

List spends much of his day with students, including an after-lunch comedy and improvisation class of nine boys.

Uncorking the comedic energy of teenage boys sounds like a risk on par with anything you could do in a chemistry lab. But List holds things under control through three distinct exercises: a skit project, a group discussion on what is funny, and an improvisation session.

List says the boys are naturally enthusiastic consumers of and participants in comedy, and in the class he works to steer them into thinking about what makes something funny and what is essential in effective comedic performances.

If any students need evidence that List knows what he teaches, they could look up the road to Versailles, where his production of Big River for The Woodford Theatre ends its well-regarded, sold-out run Sunday afternoon.

Herald-Leader contributing critic Tedrin Blair Lindsay laid most of the credit in his rave review of the show at List's feet, making some points that would be key to directing high school students: He "succeeds in blending the talent levels of the cast to a uniform quality."

"List's creativity is evident at every turn," Lindsay wrote. "For all the folksiness of the proceedings, there are no rough edges: Every detail has been thought through and addressed to make a polished theatrical offering."

Big River was List's first directing job since joining the Sayre faculty. He admits that regarding time commitments, "it was awful. I'd wake up at 5 to get ready for school, start teaching. As soon as teaching was done, go to some production meeting or whatever, and not get home until 11:30 or midnight, and then start it all over again. And I'm a sleepy guy. I need my 12 hours."

Seymour says she was waiting for List to call in sick or exhausted during Big River rehearsals, "but it never happened. He was always here with a smile on his face."

Throughout the year, List's script for Frankenstein, which had its world premiere at Lexington's SummerFest in 2011, has been receiving performances around the country, and was just announced as the season opener for The Woodford Theatre in the fall. The play is also going to be published by Dramatic Publishing.

"I'll have a book with my name on it, and hopefully it will go from one or two productions a year to eight or 10," List says.

In addition to his busy professional life, List is enjoying such job benefits such as being sent to an improv workshop at Second City in Chicago. Another perk: He has health insurance.

"I just got my teeth cleaned yesterday, and I didn't have to pay anything," List says.

Seymour exclaims, "Exactly! I told you you would love this gig."

List is finding that while there might be some romance in being a starving artist, there's also a lot to be said for being a paid professional in a job you love.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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