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Ready for Anything: Valerie O’Riordan Doesn’t Need Luck

By Monica Friedman May 20, 2013
Valerie O’Riordan, full time drama instructor at Archbishop Riordan High School, on the Season of Shakespeare set, which recreated Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Dedicated to Theater, Dedicated to Theater Students

It may be little more than coincidence that Valerie O’Riordan is the director of the theater program at a school with a name very similar to hers—Archbishop Riordan High School—but her success is deliberate, the result of love and dedication. After declaring her major at the age of 19, all of her “professional goals have been theatre related since.”

O’Riordan serves as a full time drama instructor at the 100-year-old, all-boys school, serving as chair of the institution’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, teaching theater courses, directing and producing two shows a year (a fall play and a spring musical), coordinating outside rentals for the school, and serving on the Safety Committee.

With an MFA in theater and English teaching credentials, she was well-positioned to answer the classified ad and, “with my last name being O’Riordan I thought it was particularly ironic that Riordan HS needed a drama director at the same time I was looking for full time work. During the first of 2 interviews I knew I had the job,” which she’s been doing nonstop for 13 years.

Hard Work and More Hard Work

Successful former students will return to Archbishop Riordan to help make the fundraiser a success.

Theater, O’Riordan reminds us, involves hard work. “If it is something that you feel passionate about,” she says, “you can make a living at it through hard work and resourcefulness.” She lives the example, and seems equally proud of former students who report using “what I taught them in their daily life” as she is of former students “who are making it in the biz.” But, before she can instill the value of hard work into her students, O’Riordan must model it herself.

“Our productions are extracurricular,” she explains, “so a big challenge is to get the students and their parents to understand the commitment it takes to produce theatre,” a commitment that means long hours of rehearsal after school has ended, a dedication to memorizing lines, cues, and blocking, and the understanding that performing a play is a team effort, and that the success of the performance rests on the collective efforts of each individual.

O’Riordan demonstrates to her students the importance of powering through, to the extreme. Her students are well aware of the way she’s worked through her own personal tragedies, including the death of both parents, a step parent, and her brother, in the space of a little over 4 years. “My father died,” she remembers, “while I was rehearsing a show and the students gathered me on stage and lit an candle and prayed.” It was a “very special moment” for her, one that overshadows “the occasional irresponsible, immature teenager pranks,” all too familiar to most high school instructors.

The Lucky ’13 Committee

The Lucky ’13 Fundraiser for the Guardian Angel Scholarship Fund

Like most instructors, too, she cherishes the successes: “Seeing evidence of student learning” and reconnecting with alumni rank high on that list. Combining those interests, this fall she’ll be producing an alumni fundraising event intended to “re-unite generations of Riordan alumni, and raise money for Riordan Drama and the Guardian Angel Scholarship Fund. The scholarship will be given to a senior actor or crewman who plans to pursue theatre in college.”

This multifaceted event will involve a theatrical performance, a fundraising raffle, and “several big-name alums…including Dominic Nolfi who played Tommy DeVito on Broadway in Jersey Boys” and Joe Spano. There will be “a ‘Sunday Funday’ rehearsal and theatre ‘tech’ on September 1, 2013, then the show, Lucky ‘13: A Labor of Love Alumni Revival will be on Labor Day the following day.” The Drama Clubbers, involved in every aspect of the event, will sell raffle tickets for a variety of prizes, including a $500 Apple gift card, with the club member selling the most tickets also receiving a prize. O’Riordan hopes to “secure a pink section feature and fill the house” for this performance, as well as meet all her fundraising goals and enjoying the presence of former students.

Selling the Show

Getting people through the door doesn’t seem to be a problem for O’Riordan. “Since we are a Catholic high school,” she explains, “we send [press releases] to local secular and liturgical papers along with the main media of our city.” She also uses three separate websites to advertise her shows, and employ print products in the form of posters to be hung and postcards sent to her mailing list. Since “our biggest target audience is our student body and their parent/guardians,” she doesn’t have any difficulty reaching them.

O’Riordan prints tickets to performances, and patrons can order them online. This year, she found herself the happy winner of $500 of free printing from TicketPrinting.com, a landfall that changes her budget significantly. It’s entirely possible that the prize will cover the cost of printing both the tickets for her spring and fall performances, along with the Lucky ’13 raffle tickets, “which is wonderful news.” All those savings will roll back into the fundraising efforts, funding the Guardian Angel Theater scholarship plus helping to purchase the drama department’s necessary equipment and replace old materials.

Past, Present, and Future

O’Riordan in her element, right outside the theatre office.

O’Riordan can look happily back on the past, recalling some of her favorite experiences: producing Little Shop of Horrors, which she enjoyed “because the cast was both talented and a team who had no outside drama”; Directing Romeo and Juliet “with a concept that I came up with in college, and having 2 alumni design the poster and costumes”; and “dramaturging with students Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays” while stuck inside during a rainy field trip.

At the same time, she is able to think about the present and future of theater, recognizing the challenges of promoting live performance in the digital age. Not only do “the options for many other types of entertainment divide audiences,” but O’Riordan, like most others in her shoes, laments that, “especially for theatre, the general audiences are not used to the etiquette of the theatre as much as they used to be, so they use their electronic devices during a performance and think it is acceptable to do so.”

But for O’Riordan, the future is immediate. This summer, she looks forward to attending “the wedding of two people who were in the very first show I directed. That’s thrilling!” Following the big Lucky ’13 Fundraiser, her plans are “to take a step back to catch my breath. I have been ‘in production’ non-stop for the past 13 years and I need a break!” To that end, her assistant, Joey, will be directing next year’s musical, along with the fall play comprised of student-directed one-acts.

What’s next for Archbishop Riordan High School theater? O’Riordan hasn’t “looked beyond the 2013-14 year yet,” but whatever is to come, it’s certain that O’Riordan will power through, depending on hard work. When it comes to success in the theater, it just doesn’t seem like she requires luck.