Raised in Saginaw with an early passion for theater, Birmingham Groves High School teacher John Rutherford said there wasn't much opportunity to develop his interest. As director of theater at Groves, he has created the type of program in which he had dreamed of participating.
"The kind of teacher I am is the kind of teacher I always wanted to have as a student," Rutherford said. "When I was in high school, we didn't have a vibrant theater program. There was a part-time teacher, who was also the football coach, who taught a couple of theater classes, and I approached him and asked if he would sponsor a theater program. By my junior year, I produced a version of "The Wizard of Oz." I found family and some community members to get involved, and basically produced the show. That was the way I was wired. I'm very much a hands-on learner."
Rutherford began teaching after earning his undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University, but decided he needed a master's degree in theater, so he quit his job and went back to school at Eastern Michigan University. When he finished, he took up theater work anywhere he could teach it, including Cranbrook Schools, Andover High School, Detroit High School for the Performing Arts, Young People's Theater in Ann Arbor, and teaching for a handful of years at Fitzgerald High School in Warren.
"I worked wherever they had a theater and there were kids who were interested in theater," he said.
In 2019, Rutherford celebrated his 20th year at Groves, where he has helped to develop the program into a state and nationally recognized performing arts company.
In 2007, Rutherford was the first and only theater teacher to receive the Governor's Award for Arts and Culture; he has been named the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association's Theater Teacher of the Year; the Eastern Michigan Alumni Achievement Award; and has been inducted into the Michigan Speech Coaches Hall of Fame as well as the Michigan Education Theater Association's Hall of Fame.
Key to Rutherford's success is his hand's on approach to learning. Each year's production allows students to learn all aspects of the industry, from on-stage performances to writing, research, stage crafting and beyond. The approach gives students an understanding that rivals university programs in terms of education, and gives them a clear advantage when reaching the collegiate level.
"Students are on stage, but they also design the lighting system and run the lights. There is a student sound crew. They are ushering you to the seats," he said. "You don't see the students backstage. The technical production, the hair and makeup, choreography and costumes – it's all students."
Dozens of Rutherford's former students have gone on to have successful careers, on and off the stage, on Broadway and in film, including Tony-nominated producer Rachel Sussman; Broadway performers Evan Kasprzak, Shannon Eagen and Dayna Dantzler; and dozens of other professionals in the industry.
"There are so many that are doing amazing things. The number of former students who are actively employed in the theater and film industry is pretty amazing," he said. "My favorite moment is when another teacher comes in and sees a student who may be struggling or having behavior issues, and they say, 'That's not even the same student.'
"It's a lot of hard work and perseverance, but I expect greatness out of these people, and we will only be great if we are expected to be great."
Photo: Laurie Tennent