By JEROD CLAPP
FLOYD COUNTY —
The fat lady is about to sing for two educational theater powerhouses who have each spent about three decades turning students into bona fide thespians.
Chris Bundy and David Longest, directors of the theater programs at Floyd Central and New Albany high schools, respectively, will take their final bows and retire at the end of this school year.
Between them, they’ve seen several of their students go on to big stages and the silver screen, but they’ve also taken their shows and students to national and international contests.
While their final curtain call is coming up, both agree that the show will go on.
THE KIND MONSTER
Longest and Bundy said long hours, late nights and week-long stretches in school were part of the job. Though both directors start their days with the rest of the faculty in their schools, Longest said it’s not uncommon for both of them to be the ones to lock their buildings up after the last custodians head out.
But he said getting there early and staying late helped the programs and the students become successful.
“Chris and I joke about the monster we grew that we just have to keep on feeding, but he’s a kind monster,” Longest said. “I never would have dreamed that I would have had a program this big and my kids would have gone on to Broadway and movies, I never would have guessed I’d have this.”
Bundy said he and Longest have always pushed their kids to do their best, and the programs have reaped the benefits from the dedication of the students.
“We’re probably the most respected programs in this half of the nation,” Bundy said. “Everybody knows our programs. You say that at the National Thespian Festivals, they know who New Albany is, they know who Floyd Central is. They know, competition-wise ... they hate when they see I’m having something reviewed because they know it’s probably going to go.”
Both directors have won awards, most recently with Bundy’s receiving the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. The award gives each recipient $10,000 and is showcased with students they inspired on a website.
Floyd Central has taken 13 shows to the International Thespian Festival — an invitation-only event where schools across the country pit their shows against other programs — and he’s been with every school he’s ever taught.
“People come and see these finished shows and they think they just happen,” Bundy said. “They have no idea how much time and effort has gone into them.”
The schools have been featured in reviews in big-name newspapers and a premium cable channel’s documentary. Floyd Central’s program has also been to Fringe Fest, a theater festival in Scotland, four times. But Bundy said the primary aim was never to compete for recognition.
“We’re not out to win awards,” Bundy said. “We’re doing what we do correctly. Those things just come to you. When you’re doing what you need to do and the kids are doing what they want and need to do, those things just come to you.”
Though the two state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar facilities help make for great shows, Longest said he and Bundy both worked their way up to those facilities. But he said neither of them would have ever made the programs as huge as they are without the support of the community.
“I still feel very, very young,” Longest said. “I’m just starting to realize that as I look around my classroom, the school system, everyone that supports us. Both of us live in pretty comfortable kingdoms. We’ve kind of been allowed to live in a comfortable kingdom where we get to do our own creative endeavors. We’ve really been able to do whatever we want to do, and that’s the reason we’ve flourished.”
Tom Weatherston, the theater director at both high schools before Longest and Bundy, said Longest was a student of his while he was in high school. He said watching him take his spot and continue to make the program grow was very rewarding.
“He’s continued, he’s expanded in many ways, he’s offered experiences to a great many young people,” Weatherston said. “He will be missed, I’m sure.”
Louis Jensen, director of high schools and former principal at Floyd Central, said he’s known Bundy from other schools where they’ve both worked. He said Bundy’s approach to teaching was something he wanted to see mimicked in other classrooms.
“He never accepted when a student said ‘I cant’,” Jensen said. “That was never part of his vocabulary, and I think that’s what you have to do. You don’t lower your expectations, you raise them.”
He said while many programs at Floyd Central often got national attention in one fashion or another, he was proud Bundy helped add to the school’s notoriety.
“That was just kind of the bar we set at the school, you want to continue to be better than you are,” Jensen said. “It was just exciting to be a part of that. Whatever Chris did never surprised me. I knew that his dreams could take him as high as he wanted to go.”
Bundy has spent 39 years in educational theater, 15 of those at Floyd Central High School as the director of theater arts. Longest has been at New Albany High School since 1984.
Though the idea of retirement has been on the minds of both, the work has kept them coming back for a combined 44 years in New Albany-Floyd County schools.
“In my mind, I’ve wanted to do this for a while and not because I don’t still love this, I do. I absolutely do,” Bundy said. “I keep telling myself that too when I’m up until 2 a.m. trying to finish the sets for a show.”
Long hours and seven day weeks were common, Longest said, but he said the work he did always brought him joy.
“The whole thing is one big, nice, giant surprise,” Longest said. “For someone to leave a job position, it would be terrible to say ‘I hated it, I’m bitter.’ No, I’m thankful to the community and looking back, it shocks me to see that we were able to do what we did.”
Their exit has a practical reason behind it — teachers in NA-FC schools who retire this year still receive full benefits after retirement, something that’s going away after this year.
Bundy said the financial logistics of retiring after this year just wouldn’t make sense, and Longest said though he’d hoped to stick around for a couple more years, the deal was too sweet for him to pass up.
“If I had my wish-upon-a-star, I’d have retired in two years at 60,” Longest said. “To not have a reasonable health care plan is a very scary thing. This way, I have the option to not have to teach until I’m 65. That is the magic reason why it happened now. The health care benefit is better than a gold watch.”
But Bundy said his career came with a sacrifice. With so many hours spent at school through the week and on weekends, he missed the childhood of his own children.
But with retirement coming up, he said he wants to make up for lost time with his grandchildren.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Bundy said. “I’ve always said this and stated this many, many times, that my biggest regret as a teacher all these years is my own family. I have three children of my own, but literally, those kids just grew up and they knew dad was at school.”
Longest said he was lucky in that he got to spend his career with his family because his wife and daughter were both involved in the program.
Now, with retirement on the way, he said he’ll move to Florida with his wife, Ann, to be closer to their daughter, Claire, who works at Walt Disney World.
Longest said he’d like to work there, even if he’s just going to stand in a costume selling popcorn. But in the meantime, he’ll also teach English classes at Valencia College.
But Bundy said he’ll still miss doing what he does, especially because of the strong memories he has with each cast.
“It’s just the day to day contact with the kids,” Bundy said. “To me, that’s just been an incredibly cool part of my life. I think a lot of them just think they’re here for the four years, and then they leave and they’re gone. But they’re not, but so many of these kids I’ve had in my head for 40 years and they’re just as clear in my head as when I had them.”
Longest said he echoed those sentiments, but was also glad that students in his classes could continue to be involved in theater to one capacity or another.
“There are very few kids who walk out and never pursue it again, they get involved in some way,” Longest said. “They’re either wonderful audiences, going to Broadway frequently, or they’re going to be parents who are going to help their kids pursue the arts. I’ve never seen a kid give up on the arts. They give up on basketball, but they continue their love of the arts. It goes on.”
Jensen said the district plans to announce their recommendations for the replacements of Longest and Bundy at the NA-FC board of trustees’ meeting April 23.
But Bundy said there’s a lot of preparation to do before someone fills their positions.
“I’m trying to get all those detail things written out and ready for a person coming in,” Bundy said. “And plus, just the fact that I have 23 total spaces that I have to be responsible for, so a person needs to know where the prop room is.”
But he said it’s not just as simple as that — they need to know which prop room they need to go to, whether it’s general props, furniture props or where wood is stored for the stages.
But he said it’s nice for someone to walk into a program that has everything rather than a program that has nothing.
“I think that’s the exciting part for anybody that comes in for both of us,” Bundy said. “I think we’ve both had to dig for cardboard to build a set in our lifetimes. Whereas now, we’re in these wonderful facilities and our lives are much easier than they were back in the old days when we started.”
Longest said he’s glad the community support has been overwhelming over the years, and is the biggest reason the program at New Albany is as big as it is.
“When people talk about leaving in all that, I can say I thank the community when I do my curtain speeches, but I really, really thank them because they didn’t have to step up and pay for this facility the way they have,” Longest said.
Nancy Brown, the director of the International Thespian Festival, said whoever takes over for the two directors will have big acts to follow.
“I can only imagine that it’s going to leave a huge hole in the Southern Indiana educational theater programs,” Brown said. “They have contributed to the festival for many years. I’ve been around for 22 years and they’ve both been involved as long as I have, and even longer.”
Longest said even though he’s leaving, he’s confident his replacement will continue to grow the program’s success through the students.
“The phrase I’ve always used is from ‘Field of Dreams,’ because I’m also a baseball fan,” Longest said. “If you build it, they will come. We’ve built it and they came. We built huge programs that were successful, people came, and because of that, the kids have flourished.”
Longest’s last show has already graced the stage and Bundy has one more coming up the weekend of April 21 and 22, with “Celtic Dreams.” The show will feature Davina Young, who is flying in from Scotland to narrate the show.
Bundy said the best thing he’s been able to do for his students is make them feel like they can do anything, even if the technical or theatrical pieces seem to limit those goals.
“I think it’s fun to look at what is the impossible, what did they think they can’t accomplish, and then give them the tools to accomplish it,” Bundy said. “That’s what I think is so cool about it and has been so cool about it all these years.”