It’s difficult to tell whether the small Tupperware bowl full of spaghetti on the edge of the Durango High School stage is a prop or someone’s lunch.
Ben Mattson, director of DHS Troupe 1096, laughed at this. He said last year at an after-school activity, he planned an escape room-style game for some of the students and planted clues around the theater room. They were having a hard time differentiating “what was a clue and what was trash,” he said. They were poring over of his personal highlighted scripts like something out of “The Da Vinci Code.”
Organizing extracurricular events is a small portion of Mattson’s day-to-day work. He is in his fourth year as theater director, teaches theater and acts in his free time.
The DHS theater program is known for its high-quality work. Mattson said the culture of excellence was put into place by former directors.
“Having a high expectation just breeds success,” Mattson said. “The kids have seen it and they know they’re capable of it, so they push themselves inherently on their own.”
Mattson was working in Aztec as a choir teacher before moving to Durango in 2016. Originally from Bemidji, Minnesota, he studied theater at Minnesota State University Moorhead. The program there emphasized all aspects of theater, including the technical side, which has come in handy as DHS director, he said.
“Doing high school theater, you are in charge of it all, so you have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” he said. “What’s cool about this program is that the tech side of things almost has a higher standing than the performance. There is a lot of pride in what the kids do with tech.”
Mattson said there are about 100 students in the troupe, but the number changes throughout the year. This year, there are many talented seniors in the program who have been with him all four years he has been with DHS.
“He’s the worst! He’s awful,” a group of senior girls joke about their favorite teacher. In reality, they adore him, they said.
“We love Mattson. He’s one of the most influential people in my life,” said senior Sophie Hughes, who has been in the troupe since eighth grade.
Knowing the strengths of the students in the troupe helps him select the plays for the season, but Mattson said the goal is to find the balance between picking suitable plays without precasting.
“Sometimes I’ll pick a show because I can see the pieces I have right now will fit that puzzle,” he said. “But sometimes, a new piece comes in that is more exciting.”
Mattson said he tries to choose a variety of plays the students would be interested in, yet pushes them into areas they might not even know they are interested in yet.
The 2018-19 season will start in November with “9 to 5: The Musical,” based on the 1980 movie starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The movie follows three women as they plot to get revenge on their condescending, sexist boss.
“My senior class this year as a whole is insanely talented, and I have some real powerhouse female singers, so I wanted to find a musical that showcased women and showcased the power and strength of women,” Mattson said.
“9 to 5” is followed by the free Underclassmen Gala in mid-January, which will be followed by “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to “Peter Pan,” in late January. Because “9 to 5” is more adult, Mattson made a point to follow with a family-friendly performance.
The season will close in May with “She Kills Monsters,” a dark comedy about a college student who discovers her deceased little sister’s inner world through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign her sister wrote.
Mattson said he quickly felt the busyness of the season the first week of school.
“It’s always hitting the ground running and then never slowing down. It’s an intense, intense job, but I love it,” he said.
While preparing for the beginning of the year, Mattson was also busy memorizing lines for “Next To Normal,” a play about drug addiction and mental health, staged at Durango Arts Center. Mattson said he was in the play with some of his students.
“Sometimes I feel like Ben at rehearsal, and sometimes I feel like Mr. Mattson at rehearsal, (but) I don’t want to be Mr. Mattson at rehearsal. It hits my ear weird,” he said. “One of (my students) will always be like, ‘Hi, Ben’ and make it this weird awkward point to use my name because she can, like ‘Hello, Ben.’”
That student is Siena Widen. She said there is a fine professional line between being a teacher and being a friend, and Mattson is does a great job at navigating that.
“It is cool to have an experience where we get to be co-workers in that way,” Mattson said. “Ultimately, I have no authority over them in that world.”
In that world, Mattson said he connects most to characters such as “Rocky Horror Picture Show’s” Frankenfurter – the narrators and guides of the play who speak directly to the audience.
“I am good at that. I am good at the Lonnie characters (from ‘Rock of Ages’) that let me be the liaison to the audience,” he said. “I am going to control the rules of the show. The energy you get back from the audience, it’s very different energy than when you’re a character in the show and that fourth wall is up.”
Mattson said when he was in college, his professors called tapping into the qualities and characteristics that emit through you as finding your vein of gold. This is something he wants his students to discover for themselves.
“I’m not wondering what they could do better, but what natural qualities do they have that are going to shine through,” he said.