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The Road Less Traveled

Dr. Patrick O’Connor

Most creative, successful people have traveled very interesting paths to get to where they are … usually zig-zagging a lot, shifting gears, retracing steps, exploring new passions, revisiting previous experiences, maybe reinventing themselves and generally bouncing back often. All these experiences are part of their creative profile and serve to motivate and inspire them. This feature, The Road Less Traveled tells that story. It answers the question; how did they get to where they are now? This version of The Road Less Traveled features Thomas Q. Fulton Jr., creative director of the Academy for the Performing Arts hosted by Chagrin Falls High School.

How You get to a Place in Life You Never Thought You Would
“I swore I would never teach high school when I graduated from college. I felt teaching was a poor man’s profession, in more ways than one. George Bernard Shaw told me of the proverb in Man and Superman: “Those that can, do; those that cannot, teach.”

Tom Fulton kept his distance from teaching for many years, soaking up professional experience, lessons, and knowledge as he worked. However, in the end, the teaching profession became his first and most important work, developing an ensemble of  likeminded artists for the theatre. Now, 40 years later, it is his real profession. He still acts and directs professionally but wakes up every morning to share his knowledge and experience with young people with the passion to act and to become artists. Next year, 2017—2018, will mark the 10-year anniversary of what has become one of the most recognized high school theatre training programs in the United States.

Learning Lessons to Share—50 Years in the Making 

Tom’s interest in theatre began by watching his parents perform in a community theatre they helped found—The Kenston Players. He began his own acting career as a 15-year-old with the Heights Youth Theatre and the WKYC TV East Ohio Fairy Tale Theatre. This would be the start of four interrelated educational paths Tom would experience for some 50 years. His extensive experience as a theatre practitioner was complemented by formal theatre education in high school and college. He also learned many lessons from the school of hard knocks, transferring them to his theatre work. And, he learned professional teacher education skills as part of a teaching license in Career Technical Education (CTE), which qualified him to teach a high school theatre program. He has developed, through all his experiences, an edge that
enables him to be successful in the theatre world as both practitioner and teacher, which requires a thick skin. Tom believes, “my work is my life is my education”.

Along with developing his acting skills as a teenager, Tom learned to play and love the guitar, even playing in a few bands: first folk and then rock-n-roll. He also studied and practiced photography, getting pretty good at it as an amateur. Of his many interests as a teenager, he gave up hunting after shooting a squirrel. He didn’t like the feeling he got, so he
decided to shoot them with a camera instead.

Tom was submitted to much ridicule in high school because he wanted to act and sing, which were considered “sissy” for a boy. Also, he worked hard at trying to be an athlete (football and basketball), but mostly because that’s what others told him he should be doing. He wanted his dad to be proud of him. After three years of it, he decided he’d had enough of “trying to be cool” and went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Traverse City, Michigan. For the first time in his life, he was around other artistic young people and finally felt at home, breathing “alien air”. The mission of Interlochen is:

Dedicated to the Promotion of World Friendship
through the Universal Language of the Arts

After Interlochen, it was on to the Southern Methodist University to study theatre. A full schedule of all things theatre immersed Tom in the world he loved most. It was here that all his previous experiences would become connected to the theatre. It was here he would learn a most important lesson: that every experience, every person and every job shape the actor. In particular, it was here he met and studied under Joan Potter. Potter mentored Tom the way she had been mentored at the Actor’s Studio, under the guidance of Lee Strasburg. From Joan, he learned respect for his colleagues, love for the theatre, humility, and the recognition that process is everything and destination or product is irrelevant. He learned that theatre is “like melting snow”. Joan died five years ago. But she is still with Tom “in my head, urging me to commit, define, let go, and humble myself so that I may serve the play—
and each moment I have with those I love.“

Tom has had different jobs (many part-time) over the years, in the spirit of supporting himself as a “working actor”. He painted houses, did framing on construction crews, built furniture, did some plumbing, and even worked as a loan collector (“the worst job I ever had”). He also taught himself graphic design and worked web-design positions at John Carroll and Case Western Reserve universities while teaching theatre at both. His theatre skills helped him in many of these jobs and he learned valuable employability skills from them which he has used in the theatre.

Tom has learned that surviving as an artist places remarkable challenges in front of you. The theatre gave him employability skills that he has found transferrable to nearly any job. Creativity is a requirement and with an entrepreneurial spirit, you can do most anything.

So what is Career Technical Education (CTE)?
CTE takes experienced practitioners and brings them into schools to teach their careers to high school students. The teachers work on their teaching licenses while they actually teach. Thousands of Ohio CTE teachers, over the years, have been prepared through this path. Tom completed his teaching licensure coursework as part of master’s degree at Kent State University.

CTE programs are founded on the principles of the European apprenticeship system for preparing people for occupations. Some graduates go right into the workforce, some go to community or four-year colleges, others go in the military, and some even start their own businesses. In recent years, the programs have expanded from more traditional programs such as culinary arts, carpentry, and welding to contemporary programs like athletic training, interactive media, and performing arts.

Ohio and other states have dozens of CTE programs in a wide range of occupational areas. For example, in Ohio, there are approximately 120,000 students in grades 9—12 in CTE programs. About 6,000 of those students are enrolled in the arts and communications programs, which includes performing arts. Students at the Academy are part of a group of 11 schools in Northeast Ohio that share CTE programs through the ExcelTech consortium hosted at Mayfield High School. Any student from the 11 school districts can attend the academy by passing the entrance audition. More details on the consortium are available at

Real World Experience—Authentic Learning
This non-traditional approach to teacher preparation, based on real-life experience, appealed to Tom rather than the traditional
approach most teachers take. Tom has taught many lessons over the years to hundreds of actors. It seems like Tom has been teaching all his life … maybe he just never realized it. Much of his career seems to follow the Chinese Proverb:

It is the teacher’s job to open the door; it is the student’s job to go through the door.

Tom brings his extensive experience in virtually all aspects of theatre; locally, regionally, and nationally to his students. He has worked as a director, actor, producer, and a teacher of acting. He has done everything associated with performances, from selling tickets, to building sets, making props, and controlling lighting and sound. His range of experiences include all genres of theatre, from tragedy to musical comedy. His heart, however, belongs to Shakespeare and he believes and practices “If you can do Shakespeare, you can act in anything”.

In addition to everything associated with performances, Tom has been an influential leader in theatre. His leadership is evident in starting regional theatre companies, such as Center Repertory Theatre, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, Cleveland Theatre Company, and the Professional Alliance of Cleveland Theatres. He was also director of the Fairmount Center for the Arts, as well as a leader in the Actor’s Equity Association.

The Academy for the Performing Arts—Sharing Lessons Learned

Tom’s extensive experience and influential role in theatre led him to direct the Academy, which was established as part of a major theatre renovation at Chagrin Falls High School. His experiences have taught him a great deal about patience, attention to detail, working with others, developing budgets, and managing large groups of people. Since taking the reins at the Academy, his administrative skills have tightened and “For the first time, I believe my ship is tight, and seaworthy.” It is interesting to note that Tom had approximately 40 years in his profession when he started the Academy.

The Academy is essentially a college level program in a high school setting. The mission of the Academy is “developing courage, confidence. and self-awareness through mastery of the modern, musical, and classical theatre.” Eight shows are performed annually in the full range of theatre options. Some 100 junior and senior students, five full time teachers, and numerous part-time and special assignment faculty devote countless hours to performing exemplary theatre. Tom’s teaching staff comes from the industry, just as he has, and everyone continues to work and learn in the “real world” of theatre. Dozens of students have graduated from the Academy and moved on to college theatre programs across the country. Some alums have had major roles on Broadway and television; one currently has the lead role in Book of Mormon national touring group, while others have become playwrights, musicians, stage managers, and designers. One graduate is a performer in the Royal Academy for the Arts in London. Most alums return frequently to continue learning from Tom and his faculty team and to share their lessons with current students. This is all testimony to the extensive experience and network Tom has created. The website for the Academy is

The Main Messages
There are many, many messages Tom’s wants his student to learn. The art of the theatre is the overarching lesson to be shared. As an artist, it is impossible to live separate from the creative mindset.

Some of the main messages Tom schools his students on are:

Not everything is art. Today in pop culture, almost anything passes for art. Much of what is done today is lowering the standard for everything, including art. Tom believes this is unfortunate and wants students to know that there are standards, a history, and an expectation for theatre artists.

Art is bigger than the artist. Stanislavski, from My Life in Art, informs us “Love art in yourself; not yourself in art”. Tom teaches that it is always about the art, rather than the individual artist, as vanity “eats like acid at your talent”.

It takes time to create timeless art. The artist must be willing to put in the hours and learn the lessons taught by experience. Becoming original is almost an art in itself. For the actor, imitation and comparison will fail every time. Invention and creativity will always win in the end.

The power of an actor is in being true to yourself. Living in the moment is the key to happiness and great art. Right or wrong, but
always true. Everything we experience in life; family, love, anger, grief, joy—all of the fruits of living this short life—become fuel for the fire of creation.

Everything is connected and necessary to bring the power of ‘self’ to the stage. Who you are is where your power as an actor comes from. Good actors know themselves. For an artist, everything has a reason.

Tom has blended all his experience and expertise into an Academy that looks and feels a good bit like Interlochen. It provides an opportunity for the students to learn the lessons Tom and his staff have learned and to grow and love everything about theatre and all the things it teaches. A critical lesson Tom has learned and shares with students through everything he teaches boils down to a popular line from King Lear, which also appears on his e-mail address: Thou must be patient.

Tom Fulton