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Community Spotlight: Marilynn Zeljeznjak

By Ginny Butsch posted 01-03-2017 10:27



One of the main goals for our Theatre Education Community is to help theatre students and professionals from all over connect and identify with each other in order to build resources and support the theatre education field. We shine a spotlight on a different member every other week by conducting a simple interview.


Our latest Spotlight Member is Marilynn Zeljeznjak, a retired theatre teacher living in Blacksburg, Virginia. Marilynn is making the most of her retirement through volunteer/charitable activities, directing local theatre productions, and of course, sharing her expert advice with theatre teachers seeking help in our Community.


Ginny: First of all, tell us a bit about your career.


Marilynn: I taught for 35 years; I started at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach CA, opened Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, then finished out my career at Mar Vista. Both are in the Sweetwater Union High School District. I taught a variety of drama classes, including Stagecraft and Production. I also taught a large assortment of English classes.


Ginny: What kind of training/education did it take to get your job?


Marilynn: My degree from the University of Houston was English Teaching. Although I had 30 units above what was required to graduate, San Diego City Schools required six units of post graduate work. Instead of taking 6 random units, I got a Masters in Theatre from San Diego State University and didn’t even apply to City Schools!


Ginny: How many plays have you directed? Which stands out and why?


Marilynn: I directed two full length plays a year plus an assortment of short pieces and variety shows. Some favorites include Miracle Worker, A Company of Wayward Saints, Charlie’s Aunt, A Piece of My Heart, Becoming Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Laramie Project. I also produced a gorgeous production of the original Peter Pan (she said modestly). Some stand out because of the message; others because I can still see moments of the production.


Ginny: Why do you believe theatre is important?


Marilynn: Theatre teaches life skills. I had a wonderful paragraph I adapted from EdTA’s “Theatre in Our Schools Month” that enumerated all the reasons. Theatre teaches kids skills that are vital in life, no matter if they continue in theatre or not. It puts them in touch with their creative side, something most students lose by the end of elementary school. Students learn communication through writing, speaking, body language and appearance.  Everyone uses these skills: police officers, lawyers, teachers, anyone who has to deal with people, which is just about everyone!


Ginny: What inspired you to become a teacher?


Marilynn: For the most part, I had amazing teachers from 3rd grade on. I wanted to belong to that group. In high school, I was president of Future Teachers of America.


Ginny: What advice do you have for new theatre teachers?


Marilynn: The first year is the hardest. Take it one day at a time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Ginny: What is the resource you most recommend to other teachers?


Marilynn: Take advantage of the EdTA community; attend conferences and your local festivals. Network!


Ginny: Favorite musical (or play)? What makes it so special?


Marilynn: It’s had to choose just one. Of the musicals I’ve seen, Les Mis is one of my favorites; the music is gorgeous and it is one of the few shows with a catharsis. Something Rotten is a hoot with clever lyrics and tons of musical theatre and Shakespeare references. Peter and the Starcatcher is magical. 


Ginny: What was the first play you ever saw?


Marilynn: I think I saw a children’s show in elementary school; in junior high I saw My Fair Lady and declared it, “Loverly!” I was bitten!!


Ginny: What is your “dream” show? The one that you would love to direct or perform in if there weren’t any obstacles?


Marilynn: I would love to have been able to direct Children of a Lesser God, but I never had the resources. We didn’t have have a vocal music department, so I couldn’t do musicals. I talked several friends into producing Children of Eden, one of my favorite shows. They all thanked me later! I finally got to direct a community theatre production after I retired.


Ginny: What was the most difficult element of a production you’ve ever had to manage?


Marilynn: Sound and projections. 


Ginny: Everyone has at least one good theatre story. Tell us yours!


Marilynn: We were doing 1984, when the fire alarm went off. Only the fire department could turn it off and it took 45 minutes for them to arrive. Most of the audience stayed outside the theatre until we could resume. I thought it was a tremendous compliment to the cast. Funny, silly moment: We didn’t get our candlestick phone for Blithe Spirit until opening night. When the phone rang, Charles picked it up with both hands, including the arm in the sling.


Ginny: What was unique about your theatre program?


Marilynn: I was empowering students before it became a buzz word. Because of my district’s demographics, color blind casting was the norm.


Ginny: Tell us about a student that you’ll always remember and why (do not include real name unless you have permission).


Marilynn: It’s hard to pick just one! One of best parts of teaching drama was to watch students who had tiny voices, no stage presence and very little self-confidence, learn to hone those skills, to grow into them and become confident. These are skills they will take with them throughout their lives.


Ginny: Tell us about the moment that made you decide to get involved in theatre.


Marilynn: I loved theatre from my first experience and wanted to be involved in some way. I can act, and will if I HAVE to, but decided early on that I preferred working behind the scenes. Working props and stage managing were my favorite roles.


Ginny: What is the weirdest stage food you’ve ever made or eaten?


Marilynn: A celastic turkey in college. Celastic is a plastic impregnated cloth, that, when immersed in a really smelly solvent, becomes moldable, then hard. Think of it as an unbreakable, lethal paper mache! The upstage side of the turkey had a detachable leg that the actor pulled out and waved around. It looked great from the house!


Ginny: Name something on your bucket list.


Marilynn: Seeing Hamilton and the Northern Lights.


Ginny: If you could have a different career, what would you choose?


Marilynn: If I could have taken the long hours, I think I would have been a professional stage manager.


Ginny: What is your proudest accomplishment?


Marilynn: In life: raising 2 amazing daughters; one who helps others by being a social worker and one who has followed in my footsteps and is an Equity stage manager.

In education: being inducted into the CA Thespian Hall of Fame and having several students make careers in technical theatre.


Ginny: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of theatre?


Marilynn: Gardening and Scrapbooking.


Ginny: What is something we would be surprised to learn about you?


Marilynn: We lost our 2-year old granddaughter who died while waiting for a liver transplant. Although a long time believer in organ donation, I became quite active with DonateLife following retirement. Please sign up to be an organ/tissue donor in your home state.


Ginny: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?


Marilynn: When I was young, it would have been New York or London because of the theatre and the history. I can only take them in small doses now!


Ginny: What toy do you most remember from your childhood?


Marilynn: I had the first high-heeled doll, Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring (a character from The Howdy Doody Show). Unfortunately, she was one of the dolls I played with regularly, so she is only a memory.


Marilynn’s passion, knowledge and experience are a true gift to the Community. If you enjoyed Marilynn’s interview as much as I did, add her as a contact in the Community!


Do you know someone who deserves a moment in the Spotlight? Tell me their name and why at Want to read more Community Spotlights? You can find them here.