Ken Cleerdin, beloved MHS theater mentor, retires
By GWEN OREL
“Ken Cleerdin is the reason I’m in theater.” —Malachy Kronberg
Ken Cleerdin, technical director of Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts, as well as an art teacher, is retiring this year.
But his legacy continues.
Malachy Kronberg, associate audio supervisor at The Public Theater in New York City, says it that directly.
Former students of Cleerdin’s are designers and stagehands on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, at The Public Theater, are union reps.
Among them: Jackie Young, technical director for Two River Theater in Red Bank; Matt Walsh, Broadway stagehand; Daryl Shelton, technical director for the IRT Theater in N.Y.C.; sound designer Charles Coes.
Cleerdin, say current and former students, expected them to rise to a challenge, and they did.
Watching students bloom is the thing that fills him with the most pride.
“Basically they come in as novices, not knowing a lot. The way I have the organization set up is I’m there, and I can teach, and I can guide, and I mentor. But basically, the students, the seniors and the juniors, teach the sophomores and the freshmen. That’s the way it goes. And that’s how we keep it going,” he said.
In “She Kills Monsters,” by Qui Nguyen, an SVPA drama presented in January and February, techies took front and center.
The show is set partly in a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy realm.
Ellie Carhart, a graduating senior and the SVPA head of tech, played a “bugbear” in the show. A Dungeons & Dragons player, she also made a PDF about the game for cast and crew who didn’t play.
Carhart began doing tech work as a freshman, and now she will be attending Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts for set design this fall.
“And I honestly wouldn’t be doing that if he hadn’t always pushed me to do the best work that I could,” she said.
“They felt so empowered. There was absolutely no way that you didn’t continually notice how the kids were just enamored with him,” said Brenda Pepper, artistic director of SVPA, who began working at MHS in 2008.
Cleerdin has worked with SVPA in two different stints: The first time was in the late ’70s, when SVPA was SPA, the School of Performing Arts, with arts classwork held separately. Today, SVPA is an after-school activity. He left in the mid-’80s, and returned in 1998. He had teaching credentials for art and had been working in Brick Township. During the ’70s and ’80s, he also built shows for many of the small theaters Off-Broadway, and had a business restoring old houses.
Sound designer Coes said that Cleerdin “created a community and space, and treated everyone like they were an adult and professional, capable of learning on their own, and achieving on their own.” Coes, who owns Charles Coes Sound Design and has worked at many regional theaters, earned an MFA in sound design at Yale.
Kronberg too was struck by Cleerdin’s attitude of empowerment.
“He taught me how to think through problems, and the ability to do that is a skill that has served me well to this day,” said Kronberg, who is in his 10th year at The Public Theater.
By giving older students responsibility for mentoring younger ones, everyone ends up taking the responsibilities seriously, Cleerdin said. “If someone is goofing off, another kid will say ‘Knock it off, we have a show to do,’” he said.
Even such things as trusting students with power tools impressed Ian Dillingham, MHS 2017, now a student at Northwestern University and, like Carhart, a former head of tech.
“He was almost like a father figure to the tech community,” Dillingham said.
THE PIED PIPER
Many people call the very tall, soft-spoken Cleerdin the Pied Piper.
He seems shy, not someone who comes into a room and takes over; he is soft-spoken and a good listener, Pepper said.
“Although, I’m told by the kids, when he’s calling in for final tech, he can bellow,” she said with a laugh.
Dillingham remembers that he seemed an imposing figure when he first met him: “He’s upwards of 6 feet. He has a moustache and goatee combo reminiscent of Colonel Sanders. But then you meet him and find out he’s the nicest guy.”
There are rituals many students will miss.
Everyone shakes Cleerdin’s hand when they leave after a build or a run, Carhart said.
There are pre-show rituals among the tech crew as well, where everyone goes outside and a story is repeated that includes the initials B.C. — Before Cleerdin.
Another way Cleerdin recognized the techies was that on every opening night, he put up a poster thanking them and offering words of encouragement. “We used to call these ‘Cleerdins,’ and I looked forward to them every single show, even after I came back to work as a professional for SVPA and we were peers,” Kronberg said.
And one quirk noted by many is that he proudly does not have a cell phone.
So it is a challenge getting hold of him on weekends, students said affectionately.
Cleerdin always made sure that a design idea presented by a director could be executed safely, but also, Carhart said, that there was a way to put some of her own ideas into the set.
“I also took AP art history with him in junior year. And he really is just so passionate about art, and all its forms,” she said.
He would push her by asking questions: “Are you proud of this? Does seeing this make you happy?” And if she answered “Not really,” he would say, “Always be honest, because that’s what’s important.”
That’s unusual, in Pepper’s experience. “It wasn’t just ‘Oh, here’s the nuts and bolts of how we’re going to build something.’ He helped develop that artistic side in the students.”
Monique Baltzer, she recalled, was an “extraordinary artist.” When SVPA performed “In the Heights,” Baltzer painted a portrait of the actress who played the grandmother. Baltzer also painted period-appropriate graffiti on subway doors for a production of “Rent.”
Developing as artists of the theater is one of the main things Cleerdin taught. “I would say, ‘Go for the moon,’ you know, try to make it interesting. Don’t try to make it like everybody else’s set. This is the time to do that,” he said.
A PLACE FOR TECHIES
Part of what students learned from Cleerdin is that while the show must go on, it can go on without them — and life comes first. Carhart’s grandmother died just before Tech Week, the week when actors first work with the design onstage, and cues and timing are finessed.
She was upset at having to leave her design “in the hands of people who aren’t me, because I usually would go around and check up on everything during every tech.”
Cleerdin told her she needed to learn that her designs would go into the hands of others.
When she returned she noticed some mistakes, and realized it was okay. “It was a really good lesson for me,” she said.
Dillingham thought he would have to forego a fencing team championship for a performance, since he was head of tech. Instead, Cleerdin told him, “What you’ve done has gone above and beyond for this show. So if you need to miss one night of the performance, we’ve got other people who can fill in for you. But you should know that you’ve already done a great job.” Dillingham joined his team. It didn’t win, but “that wasn’t the important part,” he said. “It was nice to be recognized.”
And a homey place for techies was particularly important to students who might otherwise feel a little out of step, Coes said. Cleerdin created an empowering place “for a bunch of high school students who were weird, and various in ideas and backgrounds, and create a cohesive experience.” A senior mentorship program he established has every senior become a buddy to a freshman.
“I wasn’t a confident person, and tech really not only gave me a community of people supporting me, but also, the first time I set-designed, I realized, I’m in charge of this and doing a good job, you know?” Carhart said.
“He definitely taught me that there’s a lot within myself, and that I shouldn’t go searching for leadership or guidance from others as much as I used to. In freshman and sophomore year, I was very much a follower. “But through the opportunities and advice he gave me, he was saying ‘I know you can do this even if it’s hard.’ It really changed my entire track. I’ve fallen in love with technical theater and become confident in my ability to lead and create.”
And now she intends to make theater her career.
“I remember the first time I figured out I could do that,” Carhart said. A friend said she was going to study stage management. Carhart thought, “Oh my god, you can get a degree in theater.”
Soon, there will be another professional Cleerdin alumna behind the scenes.