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Teachers amazed by Stratford theater


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

It's not often you get to hear a school teacher say he was wrong, but River Ridge drama coach Tim Erickson was saying it with pleasure.

"I told you three years ago that London was theater heaven," he said. "I was wrong. It's really Stratford, Ontario. That's theater heaven."

Erickson and his wife, Lori, also a River Ridge drama coach, returned earlier this week from the Stratford Theatre Festival, where they took 14 of their drama students. For years, the Ericksons have taken student groups to England to see plays and visit historic theater sites. This year, they decided to try something closer to home.

"This is so much more enjoyable," Erickson said. "London was great, but we were stressed out while we were there, always worried about safety. Stratford's not like that at all. It's quiet, quaint -- the whole town talks theater."

I went to the Stratford festival a decade ago and loved every minute of it. By what Erickson says, it's just gotten better. The Avon River that runs through the town is still bordered by weeping willow trees. The swans still swim near its banks. And the theater complex has grown, with more plays, actors, technical crew and support staff.

The group saw five plays in three days -- Fiddler on the Roof, Hamlet, Anne Frank, Three Musketeers and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Hamlet was by far everyone's favorite, Erickson said. "Hamlet was the single best play Lori and I have seen anywhere."

The kids also got to tour the costume shop, with its thousands of authentic costumes cataloged and ready to wear. They also got a 45-minute talk-back with several actors after one of the shows.

Not surprisingly, the Ericksons want an encore.

"We're already planning the trip for next year," he said.

* * *

The Ericksons' students don't forget drama classes once they graduate from River Ridge.

David Cooper, class of 1997 and a frequent River Ridge performer, spent summer solstice eve on June 21 performing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Athens, Greece Millennium Arts Celebration with a troupe of actors from the University of Florida. From there, he went to Spetses Island to do it again, with other stops planned for Epidaurus, Delphi, Corinth, Mycenae and the Acropolis.

Cooper, a National Merit Scholar and the son of Lucy and Richard Cooper, is majoring in political science, but his mom says that drama is his first love.

Even so, "he understands the practicalities and that jobs are hard to come by" in the theater, his mom says, so acting may or may not become his life's work.

Theatergoers will remember Cooper as the thunderous Teddy Brewster in the River Ridge production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1997. Cooper's character Teddy was the loony brother who kept yelling "Chaaarge" as he bolted up the Brewsters' stairs and kept digging what he thought was the Panama Canal in the Brewster basement. He also played in Meet Me in St. Louis, Our Town, Sound of Music and several other plays at River Ridge.

He's been chosen as one of 14 students in an improvisational acting group at UF called Strike Force.

"David can do whatever he wants to do," his former teacher Erickson said. "He could be a nuclear physicist or anything."

The Ericksons are still euphoric over the Stratford trip, but it hasn't taken their focus off the upcoming theater season at River Ridge.

"If we get royalty permission, the musical will be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" in the spring, he said, a reference to obtaining performance rights for the Andrew Lloyd Webber show from the licensing company, Music Theatre International. Stage West Community did Joseph a couple of years ago, and it was so popular, they brought it back as the summer show.

"Next year is the 10th anniversary of our first show, L'il Abner, so we're going to go all out," Erickson said. One thing the Ericksons plan to do is invite alumni to audition for the show.

Don't be surprised if David Cooper comes back to give it a try.

* * *

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