Mundelein High's Meier rewarded for building love of theater, student talent
Jonathan Meier's career didn't always revolve around a stage.
After earning his bachelor's degree in speech and theater education, the St. Louis native came to Chicago to pursue a career as a professional actor, doing stage work, commercials and industrial films. But Meier adds "as most young actors, I was broke."
A temporary office job led to a job in the financial services industry to pay the bills. He'd follow the banking career for 18 years.
But he knew banking was not where he wanted to stay. A year after being a stay-at-home dad, he said he needed to return to teaching and went back to school and pursued substitute teaching jobs to freshen his skills.
Among the schools he chose to apply to was Mundelein High School, which he said he discovered on a back-way drive to Six Flags Great America. Meier is grateful he made the discovery.
"They have a legitimate, rigorous theater curriculum," he said.
Meier, who has served as Mundelein's director of theater since 2004, was recently recognized for his contributions to promoting quality theater by receiving the Illinois Theatre Association's highest accolade, the 2019 Award of Honor.
"I was shocked. I demanded a recount," he joked.
"We are grateful and fortunate that Jonathan found his way back from the business world to the world of theater education," said Aimee-Lynn Newlan, executive director of the ITA.
Meier teaches four classes at Mundelein, introduction to theater, beginning acting, theater studio and technical theater, and directs many of the school's productions. He recently advised the students who produced a night of student one-act plays, and three additional productions are coming, including "The End of the World" Nov. 1 and 2, "The Elephant Man" Nov. 21 to 23, and a "Shakespeare Slam Team Showcase" on Nov. 21
Mundelein High School Principal Anthony Kroll said Meier is an educator at heart and a lover of the theater.
"For someone who sees and participates in a lot of theater on his own, he knows what it takes for students to continue on that journey to rise to that level," Kroll said.
It is the balance of teaching and directing that can be a challenge. Meier credits his wife, Jill, who he met in the theater and understands the time demands of the job.
"She understands the business. We are an art family," he said.
Directing more than 40 productions at Mundelein High School, Meier credits the strong theater program to the support from the administration, which has done a lot to build the theater program -- it once offered three annual productions and now offers seven. And, they trust him to bring varying content, some that may be tough subjects but can be learning experiences.
When Meier suggests bringing a tough-subject show to the Mundelein stage, he brings it with the educator in mind, exploring what students will learn from this production. One example Meier brought to the Mundelein stage, Kroll said, was "Trust" in 2014 by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin, which tells the story of a man who misrepresents himself in an online chat room and coerces a 14-year-old girl into an illegal sexual relationship. The show went on to be performed at the Illinois High School Theatre Festival.
"Let's talk about the issue that has caused this play to be written, why someone felt it was important to write it in the first place because there's an issue out there," Kroll said.
Meier provides students with feedback and exposure, and values looking at the talent within the student body and choosing pieces that will bring out that talent. But Kroll added leading a high school theater program also brings the struggle when there is so much talent to also give an opportunity to younger students to explore theater.
"He specifically has a New Faces event every fall," Kroll said. "We want kids to be involved right away, when they start their freshman year."
Another example is the recent night of one-act plays, which gives students the chance to try acting and pursue roles off stage, such as directing.
"It's a smaller event to give them a taste of it and they can say to themselves 'that is what I want to keep doing so I'm going to keep working and expand my skill level.'"
Meier said his job is not to turn his students into professional actors.
"My goal is to give them a love of the theater so they enjoy it all of their lives," he said.
But he adds by watching students become involved in theater, they are not only building lifelong memories but they are developing skills, such as thinking, feeling, collaborating, that they will use beyond high school to become well-rounded individuals.
"I love watching them grow, watching them become the humans they are going to become and having an impact on that," he said.