Thermond Drama Center, named after impactful parent, continues to nourish student growth

November 26, 2018 — by Marisa Kingsley and Elaine Toh

As cold morning air rushes through the doors, a soft melody hums from a piano that sits in front of an expanse of windows covered in posters with pictures of previous productions and upcoming events, clusters of friends chatter with Cup of Noodles in their hands, lounging on faded blue couches.

For many years, the Thermond Drama Center, near the main entrance of the school, has provided a sanctuary for drama students, and few know this more than drama teacher Sarah Thermond.

Thermond, a 2007 alumna of the school, also used the space as a student back when it was called The Little Theater. Yet with the space renamed to the Thermond Drama Center in 2011, it is common for her students to associate the name with her.

In point of fact, it is named after her mother, Cathie Thermond, a longtime department supporter, volunteer and patron.


Beginnings of the Thermond theatrical tradition

As a student, Sarah was an active member of the drama program, becoming president of the drama club during her time here. At the time, though, the program was in more difficult financial straits than it is today.

In stepped Cathie Thermond, a former business major who began assisting with the management of ticket sales and dealing with copyright issues to perform shows. If this wasn’t enough, she also helped make costumes and props for the major productions.

At the same time as Sarah Thermond graduated and went off to the University of Southern California, then-drama teacher Kathleen Woods was hired by to lead the Palo Alto High School drama program.

With the drama department being led by a new teacher, Cathie decided to stay and help the transition by assisting the directors with budgeting and recommendations for shows that would best fit the students.

“My mom said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to leave a brand new person in the cold. I was going to stop when my kid graduated, but let me help ease the transition,’” Sarah said. “But then over the next five years, there was a new drama teacher roughly every year, so she kept saying: ‘Oh, I want to help them transition. I want to help make this happen.’”

Throughout all the staffing changes, Cathie was the one who made sure that the drama program continued to exist, Sarah said.

To honor her mom’s heroic efforts, the school renamed the Little Theater as the Thermond Drama Center on Sept. 13, 2011. Specifically, they wanted to honor Cathie Thermond’s contributions to the program: co-founding the boosters group, helping with props and costumes and chaperoning for drama field trips.

Although her mom’s initial reaction to the naming was embarrassment, Sarah said that her mom appreciated the kind gesture, adding that the recognition from the students was more meaningful than the name itself.

Said Cathie: “I even asked them to not do it since so many people had helped with the program and refurbishing the space. I did think a name change from Little Theater to Drama Center was appropriate because the room is used for so much more than performances — it is the center of drama activities on campus. After I realized that they were going to rename the theater no matter what I said, I was of course very honored and humbled by the generous act.”

For Sarah, the drama center has created a space beneficial to both drama and non-drama students alike during her time as a teacher here starting in 2012.

Though most drama classes at other schools are taught in regular classrooms, which don’t have enough space for students to integrate any technical elements in their rehearsals, the Thermond Drama Center allows the school to provide a space for performances, as well as a black box element for students interested in technical aspects of theater. A black box theater is characterized by a movable seating area, stage, and lighting system, which allows students to experiment with different aspects of productions.

“[The drama center] really helps our students, who do go on in theater when applying to colleges, to have experience working in the McAfee but also in a black box space, especially our technicians,” Sarah said. “That's been a really important part of their building their portfolios and getting accepted at really incredible drama schools.”

Additionally, Sarah said that space lets the program not lie dormant during the times of the year that it is not preparing for the fall play or spring musical.

Throughout the year, the Thermond Drama Center hosts student-directed productions, ComedySportz and smaller drama class performances. It has also given a place for the drama program to host events for students to express their creativity, aside from drama.

“I remember a student who had no affiliation with the drama program and came to sing a song he wrote. He came up to me afterword and he just said, ‘Hey, I've never even been in this room before, but it’s just so cool that you open up [space] on campus for us all to share art together on a Saturday night. We don't always get to do that, and it was really cool,’” Sarah said.

Similar to her students, Sarah values the drama center, and even more so due to the building’s connection to her mother. Despite Cathie’s not being a theater person while growing up, she still helped the program and grew to love it, Sarah said.

“Knowing that my mom made such a big contribution to this school that there is a building named after her, to me, it just reminds me of how supportive she was always to me about going into the arts and to students who aren't her kid too,” Sarah said. “I think especially in this kind of economy and in this area, there is a lot of push on kids to go into pragmatic careers and humanities careers are no longer seen as pragmatic.”

After volunteering for 16 years for the program, Cathie continues to support the need of arts in students lives as it is “the intersection of literature, language, history, psychology, music, visual arts, practical life skills and technology.”

For Cathie, drama teaches students creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and compassion — all important qualities for students to learn. As a result, Cathie said that it was difficult to not be attached to the drama program as she can still be found produce the fall play and spring musical.

“I’m really happy to see my mom’s commitment to all of those kids who really depended on her for a lot of consistency and support and that there is something on campus that acknowledges that,” Sarah said.

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