Rush plans to move to New York City after retiring at the end of the 2016-17 school year
Only six hours to showtime and the theater hummed with activity.
Two girls sat on the stage putting fake flowers in vases. Another group of girls - armed with paintbrushes and cans black paint - stood perched on a ladder carefully painting a rectangular design onto one of the walls of the set.
Several students carefully taped a black curtain across the front of the stage. The stage and house lights flicked on and off as the tech crew tested various lighting patterns.
Two dancers kicked and twirled across the stage practicing a particularly tricky dance combination. The metal plates on the bottoms of their shoes clacked against the stage floor with their every step.
And right in the middle of everything sat Ken Rush, giving out instructions, inspecting a pile of props and answering the dozens of questions from his students.
Since 1998, Rush has been a prominent figure at the West Orange High School Theatre Department. But only 78 days remain until his 19-year legacy at the school comes to an end.
“It’s a moving and emotional thing for me,” Rush said about his upcoming retirement.
Professional Quality Theater
Prior to coming to West Orange High, Rush helped open the North East School of the Arts - a Magnet school in San Antonio, Texas. Once the school was off the ground, he and his family decided to return to Florida.
“I called the principal (at West Orange High) and asked him if he needed a theater teacher,” Rush said. “He told me that their theater teacher had just come in a half-hour earlier and resigned. So I came in and took over the department.”
From day one, the bar he set for his students was high.
“I demand a lot,” he said. “I treat my kids like professionals. All the kids are taught to do everything so they learn to respect all the people in the show. We do collegiate level work, not high school theater.”
Textbooks are nonexistent in Rush’s classroom. His philosophy is that students learn through working on productions. It’s part of the department’s motto of Professional Quality Theater, or PQT as they call it.
As a result, the school’s theater department is known throughout West Orange County for its high quality work.
“People have moved to this area just to be part of this program,” Rush said.
Leaving a legacy
Rush’s day usually starts around 6:45 a.m. and ends between 7 and 11 p.m., and he’s known to put in weekend hours for his productions.
“As a school, we know how lucky we are (to have him),” said Assistant Principal Sheri Robb.
For the students performing under Rush’s direction, their experience often sets them apart at college.
“When they go to college, they’re often the star of their program,” Rush said.
But despite their success, most of them never forget that it was Rush who gave them their start.
“They became lifetime friends,” Rush said about his former students. “ They’re always there for me, always there to text or call. They’re success are my successes. I’m very proud of them.”
He can still remember the first time he watched one of his former students performing on Broadway.
“I cried,” he said.
A glass trophy case sits in the hallway outside the theater auditorium glittering with the department’s many accomplishments.
For Rush, one of the department’s greatest achievements was getting invited to the Florida State Thespians’ annual festival. Only a select few number of schools are invited to perform a show at the festival, and West Orange High has been invited to perform numerous times.
This year, the organization asked them to perform their fall show, “42nd Street,” at the festival, which will be held March 14 to 18 in Tampa.
Talk of retirement is nothing new for Rush. He has a reputation in the department for threatening to retire every year. But this year was different.
It all started when his wife, Sara, moved to New York City for the year to be closer to their children and grandchild.
“I told her if she could live through a winter, and if she liked it, then I would move up there too,” Rush said.
When Christmas rolled around, Rush knew it was time to make a decision about retirement. The more he thought about it, the timing seemed to be right.
“We’re loosing half of the department to Windermere (High School),” Rush said. “The kids will be going through a transition already, so this seemed like a good time to bow out.”
But the biggest factor in his decision was his family.
His granddaughter, Elliot, is already 2 years old, and he doesn’t want to watch her grow up from across the country.
So he made the announcement shortly after Christmas break.
“It felt like a load off my chest,” he said.
Once he retires - his last official day is June 2 - he said he plans to leave teaching for good. Instead, he wants to get back onto the stage.
“I plan on doing some auditions to see if anything happens,” he said. “I might look into being an extra at the Met or for TV shows.”
One final show
To celebrate its invitations to perform “42nd Street” at the Florida State Thespians festival, the department decided to put on an encore performance at the school from March 9 to 12. It was to be Rush’s final show.
But Rush’s students and colleagues felt that wasn’t enough.
They put their heads together and decided to put on one more show. It will be the final farewell for their beloved director.
But he won’t be directing this one. Instead, he will be starring in it.
The name of the show has yet to be announced, but it is scheduled to open in May.
In the meantime, the school is working to choose Rush’s replacement. There has been talk of promoting Tara Whitman, who has worked with the department for more than a decade as a choreographer and is currently the associate director of the department. So far, nothing has been officially announced, but Rush did voice his support of his associate director.
“I feel confident leaving the department in her hands,” he said.
With only a 11 weeks left to go until June 2, Rush said he is looking forward to enjoying his new life of retirement in the Big Apple.
“I’m ready, but I’m nervous about it,” he said. “I know I’m going to miss the students, so I have mixed emotions about it.”
Contact Brittany Gaines at [email protected].