From Hi-Lights: Stoltenberg’s influence impacts generations

Posted February 27, 2017

By Natalie Britt and Tehya Wachuta
of the Hi-Lights staff

When the lights brighten and the curtain rises, the star of the production shares the moment with a man whose influence keeps props standing upright, chords struck in time, and lines delivered perfectly: Herb Stoltenberg.

Mr. Stoltenberg started teaching at PHS in the fall of 1968, drawn by “the excitement of learning.”  He was an English teacher, as well as the adviser for the Fall Play and Forensics.  In the spring of 1969, he took on the musical.

That was 48 years ago. 

Still, Mr. Stoltenberg continues to direct the musical after seven years of retirement from teaching.

Mr. Stoltenberg did not have much prior theater experience. The town he grew up in, Poynette, only had about 800 people. His high school did not have a theater department; rather, speech, debate and theater were in one all-encompassing class. In fact, he was only in one performance in high school.

 “I was in a One Act in high school and in college I had a walk-on as a Civil War soldier. I pushed a cart across the stage. If I was [onstage], it was like ‘Oh, is he back there?’” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Although the musical endeavor started off as a contractual obligation, it soon turned into the excitement of seeing something new … as well as collaboration.

“(Theater is) brainstorming, it’s other people’s ideas. (And) it’s exciting to see the creativity,” he said.

Sometimes, the creativity spawned from necessity. Certain ideas, after all, “would work on Broadway but would not work here,” as Mr. Stoltenberg said.  PHS does not have a rotating stage, for example.

But good theater is not constrained to New York City. “Costumes make a difference, lighting can make a difference. All of these things make the storytelling really creative,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.  “You can see facial expression, body movements.”

As he tells students: “You’re smart. You’re creative. If something doesn’t work, I’ll tell you.”

“I’m a better actor because of (Mr. Stoltenberg),” said senior Connor McManus, who has worked with Mr. Stoltenberg since his freshman year, when he was cast in the musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Students have picked up on Mr. Stoltenberg’s engaging mentality, as well as his positive attitude.

“His optimism is insane,” said senior Kirsten Dewey. “He’s always in a good mood. I remember sometimes he would show up for practice and he would be sick or stressed out, but he would still make us laugh and laugh with us.”

Even Mr. Stoltenberg’s peers have agreed that he has an ability to work with students, to coach them, to help them realize an unforeseen amount of potential.

“I’ve seen him take students who are mouse-like and get lions out of them,” said drama teacher Janet DeJean Newton, who met Mr. Stoltenberg in 1999 when she was earning her teaching certificate. “He’s so powerful and friendly. He’s the ultimate mentor to me and he always has been.”

One student who has witnessed this mouse-to-lion transformation is junior Logan Kulow, who has been in three musicals and two One Act performances with Mr. Stoltenberg.

“(Mr. Stoltenberg) has never once let something be bad. I love this about him. He knows how good we can be and never lets our acting drop below that level, even in practice,” Logan said.

This mentality also allowed Mr. Stoltenberg to shape theater into something  English teacher and One Act co-adviser Brad Feick calls “unique” – a space where any student, regardless of social group or cliché, is welcomed into an activity sometimes reserved for so-called “theater geeks.”

 “You don’t have to be the drama kid to be in a show,” said Mrs. Newton. “You can be in soccer, band, the chess club, or you can be a Homecoming king and still be in the show. (Mr. Stoltenberg) is responsible for making that happen.”

There is a real benefit from this atmosphere. “Our school is filled with so many talented people, and it was great to get to make new friends and perform with amazing people,” Logan said.

Although many students and teachers credit Mr. Stoltenberg with this inclusive atmosphere, he credits it to Plymouth School District itself.

“Plymouth School District is a diamond in the rough,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “It is a wonderful school district that allows teachers to be creative, and administration supports teachers. Teachers are creative and instill creativity and confidence in their students at whatever grade level. When people leave Plymouth School District, they really are ready to tackle the world and do whatever it is they want to do. That’s what’s so nice, is that you don’t get locked in (the mindset of) this is what you’re supposed to be; this little square, this is who you are. That’s so awful because then your personality is shaped by eighth or tenth grade, and you’re so many more things that you don’t even know about.”

For any students interested in the fall play (which Mrs. Newton now directs) or the spring musical, but aren’t sure, Mr. Stoltenberg offers this advice: “Do it now. Open a door, open a window, and allow yourself to see a creative side of yourself that you haven’t seen before.”

But overall, Mr. Stoltenberg says, “Be creative. Be inventive. Use the talents you have to open doors and see the world in a different light.”

Learn more:
Preview of this year’s PHS spring musical
PHS Artifact: Programs from 50 years of PHS productions