2022 PAVA Hall of Fame Inductee: Cynthia R. King

King to Take Her Final Bow

Cindy King glances around Room 401 in bewilderment.

“What do you do with all this stuff?” asked the Director of Theatre Arts at Notre Dame Regional High School, as she ticks off plan books, grade books, yearbooks and muddles over the compilation of a half century’s worth of teaching materials.

Theatre masks – many of them gifts – posters — Les Misérables — and memorabilia cover the back wall of the classroom. A miniature stage, complete with curtains and marionettes – gifts her brother sent from Okinawa and Czechoslovakia – are prominently displayed along another wall.

Above it, a dot-matrixed printed banner features Shakespeare’s words, “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women are merely players.”

She cherishes the aged banner – the handiwork of Matthew Buttrey, ’95, one of King’s many protégés and now a New York-based scenic and environmental designer. King gushes when reminiscing about him and other former Notre Dame Regional High School students whose theatre careers have catapulted them to the “big time.” Like the banner Buttrey created, King too has stood the test of time.

Fifty years to be exact. King is completing an amazing feat this year, drawing to a close five decades of teaching at Notre Dame Regional High School. The courses she has taught are expansive. They currently include Dramatics, Acting I, Stagecraft, English Novel and Shakespeare, but through the years have also included Speech, Creative Writing, Critical Thinking, Term Paper, Short Story, Mythology, and the list goes on. She’s also initiated a roster of others. But perhaps what she is most widely known for are her roles as director, designer and technical director of the annual musical and fall play.

“For 50 years, Cindy has impacted the lives of so many graduates of Notre Dame and members of the community,” said Tim Garner, principal at Notre Dame Regional High School. “Her name has been synonymous with drama at the high school. She is responsible for so many people having a passion for the arts.  Her ability to teach not only how to act, but also how to build a set, run sound, lighting, make-up and costumes, but most importantly to love the arts, is extraordinary. She has helped create magic on the stage and has inspired others to pursue their dreams in the arts.”

As King prepares to take her final bow this spring, she says she simply cannot talk about her retirement yet. She tears up thinking about it. It remains a concept she’s still processing.

PAVA Hall of Fame Induction

King is among the 2022 class to be inducted into Notre Dame Regional High School’s Performing and Visual Arts (PAVA) Hall of Fame, during a luncheon April 9, after which Hall of Fame members and Notre Dame alumni will enjoy this year’s musical production of “Once Upon A Mattress,” the 50th and final musical King will direct.

The Saturday, April 9, performance will be Alumni Night, and all alumni are welcome to celebrate King’s culminating production. Tickets are now on sale. Productions of “Once Upon a Mattress” will continue April 7-10 at the high school.

PAVA recognizes Notre Dame alumni or past or present faculty who have excelled in the performing or visual arts – dance, music, theatre and visual arts. PAVA inductees serve as role models of achievement for current and future students, instilling in them the knowledge that they, too, are capable of personal and professional success.

No one has lived up to these standards more extraordinarily than King. A giant in the performing arts scene in this region, King made her debut directing Notre Dame’s annual spring musicals in 1973 with “Fiddler on the Roof” in the gym at the school’s former location at 1912 Ritter Drive.

Since then, Notre Dame’s performing arts program has grown to include a fall play as well, and through it all, she has continued to groom talented students now enjoying professional careers across the international theatre scene. And for her exceptional contributions, she was honored with the 2011 Annunciation Award by the NDHS Education Fund Foundation for her immeasurable talent in sustaining Catholic secondary education, and in 2016 with the naming of the school’s multi-purpose cafeteria the “Cynthia R. King Performance Hall”.

King calls the naming of the space in her honor both “humbling” and “stressful,” a physical reminder of the growing expectations of Notre Dame’s performing arts program. Failure was never an option. Yet, as the bar was raised, she and her students continued exceeding those expectations year after year, a formidable track record exceptionally worthy of PAVA recognition.

Since the PAVA Hall of Fame was created for accomplished Notre Dame alumni, “it’s even more special knowing that I would be considered, that I could be that connected to the school,” King said of her induction. “To have somebody say, we’re inducting you into the hall of fame – wow — it’s one of those ‘what?’ kind of moments. It’s just such an honor to know that that connection, that recognition of your connection to the school is going to be there” for perpetuity, she said.

“I feel like I’ve been honored, that I’ve been rewarded,” she continued. “To have this be on top of it, it’s from here,” she said, clasping at her heart.

King’s Entrée to the Performing Arts

King, a Bonne Terre, Missouri, native, recalls as a teen enjoying making and sewing “things” for her five siblings – a Barbie closet, clothes for their Barbies, a Western shirt embroidered for her brother and a wedding dress for her sister.

“I loved building and making things,” she said.

A 1967 graduate of Illmo-Scott City High School, King recalls relocating to Scott City, Missouri, her sophomore year from Flat River (now Park Hills) Missouri. At Scott City, she participated in two one-act plays as part of high school speech class, pivotal moments that set the stage for what was to come. In one, she had a stage role, and in the other, she was assistant director.

“I enjoyed it,” she said.

She went on to attend Southeast Missouri State University, where, in a freshman speech class, the instructor discussed theatre opportunities available on campus. The next semester, she enrolled in “Introduction to Theatre,” and she quickly found herself working backstage in Rose Theatre.

“I made sure I was doing everything I could and learning what I could,” King said. “I just kind of walked into it, I guess. It was fun.”

That eventually led to her declaring a speech and theatre major, while continuing to serve backstage through her senior year. Upon completing her Bachelor of Science in Education in 1971, she had her eyes set on graduate school where she had hoped to fine-tune her interest in stage lighting. But, when her plans changed a Southeast faculty member asked her to consider being their shop foreman, a student position that piqued her interest but also required enrollment as a student. King seized the opportunity to take the two courses she lacked to complete a certification in English — her second love –and some other graduate classes, while also enjoying the shop foreman role.

“SEMO people taught me things about the ethics of theatre and the beauty of what you can find in theatre,” she said.

She credits Gary Langley, a former Southeast faculty member, for sharing his artistry with her.

“He brought something different into my world,” she said, adding she once did a summer stint as a scenic design assistant with him at The Lake Placid Center for the Arts. “He taught me not to be afraid to be creative.”

King Lands Position at Notre Dame in 1972

Shortly after her time at Southeast, a teaching position opened up at Notre Dame, and in fall 1972, King began her storied legacy of teaching “Acting” and “Stagecraft”, literature, poetry and sundry related coursework to five decades of Notre Dame students, all the while bringing her talents to bear in creating a top-tier theatre arts program at the high school.

Her Notre Dame career began at the school’s former location at 1912 Ritter Drive, where the performing arts came to life on a stage on the west end of the gymnasium in a building now known as the De Paul Center at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. Opened in 1953, the building and stage lighting were state-of the-art at the time, King said.

The performing arts shared the space with the baseball and basketball programs, resulting in theatre rehearsals to sometimes be staged in the school cafeteria. But it worked.

King was not the first to introduce musical productions at the high school; “The Sound of Music” was the first all-school musical performed at Notre Dame in 1966. Since her arrival, though, the school has staged a musical every spring, with the exception of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation. Over King’s history, the variety of spring musicals staged is both expansive and impressive.

She says she cannot name a favorite performance over her career, likening that to identifying your favorite child. They all have their own nuances, she said. But what they all have in common is King at the helm of thousands of rehearsals with thousands of students, directing the design and build of scenery and lighting, the securing of costume rentals, and coordination with sound crews, makeup, an orchestra, accompanists, vocal directors, choreographers, school support staff and parent volunteers.

Beyond the Classroom

“I teach more when I’m working on a show than I ever do in the classroom,” King said of her time directing productions.

In addition to the annual musical, her students took touring shows on the road to area elementary schools from 1976 to 2009 and wrote and performed several original scripts. In 2001, the fall play was introduced at Notre Dame with “Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” the debut performance. King has always risen to the occasion with other needs as well. She helped plan the theatre spaces at the current Notre Dame Regional High School campus at 265 Notre Dame Drive prior to the building opening in 1998. She’s also produced, designed and directed a dinner theatre production of “Nunsense” in summer 1993 to raise funds for new stage curtains, and a Notre Dame alumni benefit concert in 2005 for 1985 alumnus Brad Lively.

She began and has been the Director of Thespian Troupe #6344 since 2001, moderated the Backstage Blue theatre club and National Honor Society, coordinated the Faculty Follies, sponsored student trips to New York City, served a number of years as English Department chair, District Speech Festival judge and moderator of the NDBC Bulldog Bulletin, a weekly school broadcast written and reported by Notre Dame students. Interestingly, King was Notre Dame’s first girls’ tennis team coach in 1978-1979 and served as a volleyball scorekeeper in the early 1970s.

Her reputation for excellence precedes her as evidenced by calls she’s received and responded to, stepping up to design scenery for other high schools and community theatres, guest lecture at various high schools and present technical theatre workshops.

She’s also been known to help students prepare for college auditions and other performances and competitions.

Former Students Who’ve Taken Center Stage

Over the years, she has mentored scores of talented students who today find themselves in the spotlight in professional careers on much grander stages. She mentions Buttrey whose competitive skating skills propelled him to the next level where he skated around the globe with Disney on Ice. More recently, he’s been a scenic designer for touring shows, theatre companies across the country and off-Broadway shows and is currently associate or assistant designer on several projects bound for Broadway.

“He has credits in M.J.,” King raves.

She also glows as she highlights Roger Seyer, ’85, who performed on Broadway in “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” and toured with “Les Misérables” and “Mamma Mia”.

“He made it to Broadway,” she said, where King had a seat right behind the conductor to enjoy one of his performances up close and personal.

“It was so incredible,” she said.

And there are others. Carly Schneider,’08, toured with the Nebraska Caravan. Blake Palmer, ’08, works internationally in theatre design. Tara Meyer, ’10, handles costume design and production for network programming in California. Ryan Settle, ’14, is employed by Disney World, and Ashtia Jewell, ’02, appeared in and is featured on the cast album of the off-Broadway musical, “Flight School”. Cate Devaney, ’04, works in film in California, Michael Sullivan, ’75, is now a technical director at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and Kim Westrich Zustiak, ’95, who teaches high school speech and theatre and has been acknowledged by the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri as Teacher of the Year.  Others are excelling in a variety of other career fields and are putting their skills to work in many disciplines.

Over the years, the number of students participating in theatre at Notre Dame has fluctuated as extracurricular activities at the school have mushroomed, offering them a plethora of other opportunities. It’s a good problem to have, yet it remains a challenge as the director of theatre activities, King said. Rehearsals are key to successful productions, and she continually tries to convey to her students the limitations on their time.

Most people who see a show have little knowledge of the amount of work or number of people needed behind the scenes. To them, it is “add water and stir, and make magic,” she said. “But, “if you impress upon the audience all the challenges in producing a show, you take away the magic.”

King seems to have a knack for bringing out the best in her students. While humility pervades every inch of her being, downplaying her contributions, she takes great pride in her students’ and former students’ accomplishments.

“It’s so neat to watch them grow,” she said.

Over the years, she has received notes and letters from former students crediting their time in the performing arts at Notre Dame for helping them learn team building skills, grow interpersonal relationships and better understand people – all because they’ve studied a character. They might be in a meeting years later, she said, and something transports them back to their Notre Dame days where they can draw on a particular lesson.

“Thinking of my own time as a student,” Garner said, “the musicals bring back some of my fondest moments of high school – memories with friends, learning not only how to put on a show but how to take pride in the craft.”

Once, King received a note from a parent, informing her that their son was putting his set-building skills to work constructing a white picket fence in their backyard.

“These are life skills,” she said.

While not everyone can sing and dance, many students can contribute to a performance in other ways – set building, lighting, sound, design, makeup and ushering.

“Our gifts are different. Everybody can do something in theatre,” King said, adding she takes pride in students mastering a task of which they don’t believe they are capable. “I am absolutely proud of all of them.”

Several of King’s former students returned to Cape Girardeau in 1997, and, along with her colleagues, performed “The King of Broadway” in recognition of her 25th anniversary at Notre Dame.

“It was magic,” she said. “It was really good.”

Recognition of a Job Well Done

While King’s contributions are valued within the Notre Dame community, they have not gone unnoticed in other circles. She has received the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocesan Distinguished Teacher Award and excellence in teaching awards from both the Missouri Fine Arts Academy and the Missouri Scholars’ Academy. She was named the Southeast Missouri English Teacher of the Year in 2017 by the Southeast Missouri English Teacher Association and was honored with the MO-CAPE Educator of Achievement for educating through extra-curricular activities. Additionally, Southern Methodist University has named her an outstanding educator.

Her stagecraft has been highlighted on numerous occasions by the Southeast Missourian and TBY (The Best Years) Magazine, and she has been published in the Missouri English Bulletin.

The Future

After 50 years in the performing arts, King is beginning to reflect on her time, hoping the lessons she taught live on in her students.

“I think of auditions,” she said. “Hopefully, you can learn to accept what you are given – to be able to fulfill your role in a performance to the best of your ability and to be able to accept your place in a performance. You find your place and you do your job that is your part of the production.”

This lesson has life-long application, she said.

King could have never envisioned her teaching career at Notre Dame spanning 50 years when she began her journey in 1972.

“I did my job. I was doing what I was supposed to do,” she said. “I appreciate that people have appreciated the work. It’s about the body of work that has been accomplished. I’m honored to know that my time here mattered.”

The Notre Dame community offers King a heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

“Cindy has a lasting legacy at Notre Dame Regional High School and deserves a standing ovation,” Garner said. “Thank you, Cindy for such a wonderful gift of 50 years of service to Notre Dame Regional High School.”