Art Almquist loves his job.
I mean really loves his job. And he must be pretty good at it because he's won a couple of prestigious national commendations in the last few years.
Almquist has taught theater at Tucson High Magnet School for 20 years. In 2013, he was named by People magazine as one of the best teachers in the country. The most recent recognition is the 2016 Reba R. Robertson Award for an Outstanding American High School Drama Teacher from the Children's Theatre Foundation of America, an organization he wasn't even aware existed.
"I found out about it in an email from them in the fall of last year,"Almquist said. "I assumed they mass emailed as many drama teachers as they could find. They explained that the award was named for Reba R. Robertson who was a speech, theater and debate teacher for 40 years in Waco, Texas."
The Children's Theatre Foundation, or CTFA, raises money to be granted to activities, organizations and individuals. The Robertson award is presented every other year. There is a stipulation that one cannot self-nominate, but can be nominated by someone else, like the parent of a student. Almquist asked Cristina Furtado, who had had two Furtado children take classes with Almquist at Tucson High. They had been inspired to take Almquist's classes by her nieces and nephews who had in previous years, studied with Almquist.
She volunteered enthusiastically to write the letter. In an interview she said, "What stands out for me about Art the most is his consistency with his professionalism and his mastery of skills, and the respect he has for the kids. He treats all of the students the same, with fairness and respect."
After her letter was submitted, Almquist heard from the CTFA. "They said I could go ahead and do the formal application," he says. That meant that Almquist would send them a letter explaining who was and what would he do with award if he won it. "They wanted to know what would I do with the funds and the title."
Funds? Oh yes. As the recipient of the CTFA, Almquist received $1,000, which he says will go to upgrade some equipment for the school's theater space, and $5,000 to be used for professional development opportunities.
Almquist said the foundation had told him that after they reviewed the profiles of the candidates submitted, they would choose five candidates to interview. "When I got the phone call and they told me I had won, I was thrilled! But I said, 'Wait, what about that interview part of the application?' And they replied, 'We all unanimously agreed that you would be the one.' I was bouncing off the walls! There are so many great drama teachers out there. I was incredibly touched and flattered and honored that they felt that way."
Almquist was honored in Boston at the end of July, and there he learned more about the CTFA at the annual four-day extravaganza hosted by the American Alliance for Theater and Education. "Every year," he said, "they hold this massive four day event where there are workshops all day; there are guest speakers; publishers come to sell their plays—it's huge. And I had to speak to this packed room of theater teachers. Really, I was treated like a rock star."
Almquist is a native Tucsonan who got involved with theater as a boy. He claims he was a scrawny kid who was not good at sports, but he found a group called the Tom Thumb Players when he was twelve. It was there that his romance with theater began. Later he was encouraged by his own high school drama teacher at Sabino High School, Judy Corcoran, to give this endeavor some serious attention. He has in a big way. He graduated from Vassar College with degrees in English and education and then went to the University of Montana, where he holds two graduate degrees, an M.F.A in acting and an M.A. in performance theory and criticism.
He says he loves teaching theater to high schooler students. Students of this age are "a sort of perfect storm of hormones and emotions." The nature of theater requires taking a different approach than that of other subjects.
"Theater teaches the whole person in a way that no other subject can. I'm not trying to downplay the importance of other subjects, but theater encompasses a person's spirit, their voice, their body, their history their hopes, their dreams—all of that comes into play when you're taking a theater class. One has to be willing to take risks, to be vulnerable. For them to do that, we have to create a safe place, where they know they are respected and supported. It is so cool to watch these kids come to life, to open up, perhaps in a way they never have before."
Most Tucson high schools have theater departments, but Tucson Magnet school has three theater instructors, which is quite unusual. One of them is a former student of Almquist.
In addition to teaching his classes Almquist directs two major productions each year, and he doesn't choose light-weight plays. He has directed Moisés Kaufman The Laramie Project," Arthur Miller's All My Sons and The Crucible, another of Miller's plays.
Perhaps most impressive is that the theater program is self-sustaining. They rely on ticket sales and donations to fund their productions and parent volunteers like Furtado, who help support the program.
It's obvious that Almquist has a passion for theater and for teaching. He thinks the trend across the country of the importance of standardized tests and of cutting art programs in the schools is short-sighted.
"Participation in theater activities helps students access the deepest part of themselves. It provides tools for making real connections, within themselves and others. What we teach becomes equipment for living."