After Ritchie Jackson saw a Niceville High School theater performance more than ten years ago – he quit his job.
The 1982 graduate of NHS couldn’t believe the state of NHS’s theater department and decided to do something about it.
“It was just a hot mess, you know, cardboard sets,” Jackson said incredulously, “And I think the play was written by the theater teacher; it was awful. And you could tell half the kids in it didn’t care about it. And I was like, ‘Oh, I have to fix this, this might be my calling.'”
He left his job as a flight attendant based in New York City, moved back to Niceville, earned his degree from Northwest Florida State College, and got the job as Niceville’s Theater Director.
He didn’t start with much – around 50 bucks in the theater arts budget and a troupe of uninspired thespians. “half the kids in the theater class had just been thrown in [the class] there like a dumping ground for kids that needed an elective. They didn’t want to be there,” Jackson remembered, “I marched in with my grand plans and tell them ‘we’re going to be the premier Theatre Department in Okaloosa County.'”
Some kids didn’t buy in – about half quit before their next class. But the other half were in it for the long haul. “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you,” Jackson recalls them saying.
Three-and-a-half years later, they put on their first big show and began to get people’s attention. Their first production under Jackson’s leadership – You, the Jury, had 12 roles and an average attendance of about 35. “30 of those people were family members,” Jackson said with a laugh. Now the department is close to selling out shows – and has almost 90 student members of the cast and crew. More than 150 students showed up to audition for 23 roles in the musical.
By the way – they now have about $30,000 in the bank – a massive show of support from the community, which buys tickets and donates cash to make the theater program the envy of northwest Florida. Loyal members of the theater troupes booster club, Jeff and Rebekuh Boes lead the way – collecting tickets and operating the concession stand.
Their latest show – a less-risque version of Chicago – has broken all of their previous sales records and will continue to fund the department well into the future – along with donations and other fundraising.
Tickets are on sale for the last three shows of the season – which take place on Friday at 7 pm and on Saturday at 2 pm and 7 pm. General admission is $15 and VIP seating is $20.
“I think the level of talent is something that’s truly astounding,” Jackson said of his protégés, “A lot of times when you go to high school plays, you know, you, you get a crapshoot, you might get a really good show, and you might get a show or half the kids can’t really act and maybe the director just had to take whoever they got. But, because we’ve got such a large pool of talent that auditions for our shows every year, we’re able to pick the perfect fit for our roles. And so people come away from our shows just astounded at how good they are. And it’s because we’re so blessed to have so much talent at Niceville high school that I think that makes us unique.”
Off the stage – Jackson says the Niceville Theater Department built strong ties with the county’s other three high school theater departments – and plans to leverage those ties to benefit everyone involved in theater in Okaloosa County. Whether it’s sharing props and costumes or set-building know-how, the departments have fostered an intense spirit of cooperation for success.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to see,” Jackson said, “because it’s not a competitive us versus them. You’d never get Niceville High School football players cheering on Fort Walton Beach football players at their games. But our kids go to each other’s plays, and we cheer each other on, and it’s wonderful. And then the kids get together and talk about ‘How did you do this?’ and ‘Where did you get that?’ And ‘How did you make that’ and all that stuff.’”
There is talk of next-level plans. The four directors hope to, in the next five years, mount a show that combines all of the departments at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center. “We would pick a huge show like The Lion King or something that would have built-in audience attraction,” said Jackson, “It would be this massive show that brings all four county high schools together under one umbrella, working with four different teams. I mean, when I think about it, I get goosebumps at what it could be like. “
The show schedule for next year hasn’t been released yet – that’ll take place after the NHS Theater Department’s version of The Tony’s (a theater award show, if you’re like me and need to Google it). The announcement for the play (which will come to the stage in the fall of 2023) and the musical (which will debut in the spring of 2024) – takes place on May 20th.