Mary Poppins, the musical, is the story of a nanny who enters a household and takes the children on many magical adventures. In the end, she has a profound effect on both the children and adults in the household, and she teaches the entire family “anything can happen if you let it.”
Knowing the importance of dreaming. The profound effect she has had on others. Her dedication to young people. These words not only describe Mary Poppins, but they also describe Carol Allen, head sponsor of Mahomet-Seymour High School’s drama department.
The similarities between Mary Poppins’ influence and what Allen has achieved in her 22 years working with MS drama students cannot go un-noticed. It is almost ironic that Mary Poppins is the final production Allen will direct at the school, given the similarities. And when the last bow is taken and the stage lights dim on Sunday, May 3, Allen will officially retire from Mahomet-Seymour High School, and begin a new act in her life.
Carol Allen grew up in Central Illinois. She graduated from Illinois State University, Normal, with a degree in musical education. She also has a degree from Northeastern University in Chicago. A pianist by trade, Allen spent her early career working in churches where she had the opportunity to be involved in theatrical productions. She also gave piano and voice lessons. “I’ve worked in the arts all my life,” she said. But one day, while in church, she had a realization.
“I felt the need to go back and work with high school students,” she said. “I knew I needed a change, and I had to go outside the box to get that change.”
That change came in the form of a job opening within the music department at MSHS. Twenty-two years after that profound feeling of needing a change, Allen has influenced the lives of hundreds of young performers, including three out of her own four children, who stood in the spotlight of the MS auditorium.
The drama sponsor when Allen began working at MSHS was Judy Swiger. Allen said she feels fortunate to have Swiger as a mentor, and she still confers with her to this day about which plays to perform. Allen came on as the musical sponsor in 1993, before the young thespians who tread the boards today were even a thought. She said she became the head drama sponsor eight years ago.
As drama sponsor, she was responsible for the casting and directing of up to six productions a year, including a fall play and a spring musical. Student directed dramas also were a part of her job, as well as leading students to the Illinois Theater Fest, should a MSHS play be chosen to attend. Illinois Theater Fest is a statewide competition where schools compete for top honors as having one of the best productions in the state during a given year.
“About 4,000 students attend Theater Fest,” Allen noted. “A few years ago, our production of 39 Steps went.” She said the experience was amazing for students because they had the opportunity to work with the stage equipment and technology they had available at either University of Illinois or Illinois State University, where the event is held in alternating years.
Watching students experience the wonder of a larger scale theater production is a happy memory for Allen. There are others too. “Seeing my children perform on stage, both as a mom and a teacher,” is another good memory for Allen.
Drama has brought Allen’s theater family and her own family much closer over the years. Allen noted her husband, Doug, has been a key part of productions for many years.
“I call him my MacGyver,” referring the fictional character who can make anything out of ordinary objects. He has had a role in creating props for various productions. Allen’s son and daughter in law also play a key role in performances as vocal coach and choreographer respectively.
It is this family, her husband, four children, their spouses, and her seven grandchildren, Allen hopes to spend a lot of time with during her retirement.
Allen’s theater family, the students she has worked with tirelessly over the last two decades, are dedicated to her and sad to see her go.
Four students actively involved with the Mary Poppins production took the time from a Saturday work day to share their thoughts about their teacher and friend, Mrs. Allen.
Lily Netwon, a senior who is a student director and art director for the production, described Allen as “easy going. She is like a mom to all of us.”
Newton also spoke about how Allen’s direction helped prepare her for her current student director’s job. “She helped me learn. She taught me how to make things look good on stage.”
One of the many things Newton said she appreciates about Allen is how she helps her students balance theater activities with other things going on in their lives. Allen said she insists students maintain their grades to participate in performances. One time she had to tell her lead actress in a play she couldn’t perform in the production because the student’s grades had slipped.
And Allen, who felt the calling to work with young people, uses encouragement to “get you out of your comfort zone,” Newton said.
Natalie Douglas, sophomore who plays Jane Banks, said she has worked with Allen since she was a seventh grader. Even though the musical is a high school production, if the cast calls for children, students ages 5th grade and up are allowed to audition if they meet the physical requirements. For Mary Poppins, students younger than high schoolers had to be less than 5’1” tall to play one of the child roles.
“Mrs. Allen is always there for you,” Douglas said. “She has a heart for people. She is easy to talk to, very understanding, and willing to help.”
“She is someone who is rooting for you,” Newton added. “Knowing that makes you feel special.”
The students described how Allen gives them a “pep talk” before any major weekend event like the prom.
“She talks to us about making good choices,” Newton said. “Not just ‘don’t do it because it’s bad’. She tells us to make good choices because we are important. Because we matter. That’s why we should stay safe and be careful.”
Allen helped build up the drama department, and it grew especially after the requirement a student has to be involved in the school’s music program to try out for a musical was dropped. Now students from all walks of life can and do try out to be in drama department productions.
“People come to the drama department hoping to find a place,” Newton said. “It would not be possible without Mrs. Allen. She creates a welcoming environment. Everyone in the school has a chance to be a part of it.”
Matt Cowsert, a senior who plays Bert in the play, said Allen has the ability to bring out the best in the students. “She brings out the best in us,” he said, adding students who never thought they could act, now are doing just that, plus singing and dancing on stage.
Junior Marissa Vogelsang, who plays Mary, agrees. “She takes a chance on everyone.”
Douglas said Allen always tries to make theater a learning experience. “She doesn’t just prepare us for the show, she prepares us for life. Her attitude is “let’s learn to become better people from this’.” Douglas said.
Music, theater and family will continue to be a part of Allen’s life.
Allen said while she is giving up being in charge of the high school’s plays and musicals, she still is willing to take on short term projects.
“I’ll help with the productions on a small basis,” she said. “I’ll be the pianist or help sew costumes.”
She said her long term goal is to see community theater return to Mahomet during the summertime, noting that six years ago, she was involved in murder mystery plays performed during the summer.
Looking back, Allen noted some special moments in her career at Mahomet Seymour including writing and producing Remembrances of War, a play based on letters sent by Allen’s relatives while they fought in the Civil War. She also noted special people who helped her along the way.
“I couldn’t have done this without Judy Swiger who took me under her wing and mentored me.”
Allen also is grateful to John Cobble, who masterfully designed Allen’s sets. “He is incredible. He always says ‘we’ll find a way to do that’.”
Husband, Doug, a nurse at Provena Presence Health Center’s emergency room, has been married to Allen for almost 41 years, but he has been a steady presence in her life for much longer. “I have known him since 7th grade. We were in South Pacific together in high school,” she said.
When asked about a favorite MSHS production, Allen said she can’t name one particular one. Her favorite musical is Les Miserables.
“I love the message in Les Mis. It is about forgiveness and loving each other. One line is ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’.”
That line resonates with Allen. From that time more than 2 decades ago realizing what her true calling was to Sunday afternoon, when she takes her final bow as MSHS head drama director, Allen has touched the lives of many in our community. Her young actors reflected on that.
“Mrs. Allen is a positive influence on everyone. We will thank her for that,” said Cowsert. “There are people who are alive today because of Mrs. Allen. I have no doubt.”
“She sees us as ‘hers’,” Douglas said.
“I know she is there for me,” said Vogelsang. “I know she won’t let me fail.”
It is the kindness in her heart and her love of theater, music and young people that makes her students feel cherished. Allen’s students know she loves them. And for that, in each other, they can see the face of God.