At the beginning of September, you could say Ben Mattson’s life was rather chaotic.
Not only was he playing the role of Tom Collins, an anarchist professor with AIDS in the emotionally-heavy musical production of “Rent,” which was just opening for a four-week run at the Durango Arts Center, he’d also just begun his job as the new theater teacher at Durango High School. In addition to the preparation required for any new teaching gig, especially one with such a tradition of excellence, he was simultaneously casting and prepping for “Pride and Prejudice,” his first production at the helm of the theater program.
“That was a stressful time. It was a lot,” Mattson said.
Mattson, who took over for Kristen Winchester, said “Rent” definitely made the transition smoother, a good way to show the community and students that he’s credible, that he’s for real on the stage.
“If they can see me successfully doing what I teach, then they don’t have to second guess whether my information is valid or useful. They can see ‘this is where it takes him so I’m going to listen because I want to get there, too,’” said Mattson, who grew up in Bemidji, Minnesota. “It was a really good way for them to be introduced to me as an artist. That sort of proved myself to them. I think that’s why they’ve taken to me so easily.”
While this is Mattson’s first high school job, he’s no stranger to teaching or this area. With connections to DAC Artistic Director & Theatre Manager Theresa Carson, a professor of his at Moorhead State University in Minnesota, he performed in the Strater melodrama for a summer.
Then, in 2009, after living stints in Minneapolis and Chicago, Carson lured him back with the male lead in “Annie Get Your Gun,” put on by Sandstone Productions in Farmington. At the same time, tired of the nomadic life of the theater artist and looking for some stability in the tanking economy, he landed a job in theater tech at San Juan College.
But after three years at SJC, he was looking to grow and, without a master’s degree, wouldn’t be able to move up there. He opted for the college’s alternative teaching certification program and immediately landed a job at Koogler Middle School in Aztec, where he taught choir and guitar from 2012 to 2015.
Oddly enough, Mattson really took to teaching pre-teens.
“I hated my middle school experience, and I think that more than anything served me as a middle school teacher, to be able to reach out to the kids that really needed it, who needed that support,” he said.
“It is like teaching a roomful of screaming cats … It’s hard for them to focus on music theory when they’re going through all this craziness that’s in their life or in their families.”
Despite affording him time for personal endeavors, like taking on acting jobs on the side, he had grown quite comfortable at Koogler. After three years, Mattson was looking for yet another challenge and, with Winchester’s departure, he thought the DHS job would be perfect.
“Ultimately, I decided that it was a challenge that I was craving,” he said. “I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, to see what would happen if I fully dedicated myself to one pursuit.”
The biggest difference between middle school and being the drama teacher at a high school is the time commitment, Mattson said, admitting to often putting in 10-plus-hour days at school, not including time for planning and prepping. And during show production, he and the students will be working Saturdays. Mattson said the support and help he gets from students as well as his assistant, Erin O’Connor, is critical.
“I couldn’t do my job without them,” said Mattson, who is currently prepping for the school’s spring production of “Legally Blonde.”
Mattson hopes to maintain the framework, momentum and traditions of the high school and its International Thespian Society Troupe 1096, while also gradually putting his own stamp on the accomplished program.
“I’ve always been really amazed by the level of talent that comes out of the high school here. There’s been this little part of me that’s wanted to be part of that or get closer to that because it seems like this awesome energy that comes from the high school here,” Mattson said. “I made a really conscious choice … not respond to the pressure of needing to live up to what the program was before. And just having the confidence that, as long as I go and I do ‘me,’ that’s all I have to do.”