Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ARTIST PROFILE: High School Teacher Inspires Students to Excellence, Professionalism

Claire Verity
She began her career as a dancer, touring while in high school, and is a graduate of Penn State, where her father was the play writing professor, with a BA in theater. She has performed in regional and New York theater, appeared in commercials, print and television.

She's a third generation theater professional, the daughter of famed playwright Roger Cornish (his plays are performed at every major repertory theater in the country); her mother is the writer Violet Ketels Cornish. Her grandfather was a very well-known English stage actor and her grandmother was one of the original Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and performed in the Corps de Ballet at the Met in New York City.

Today she brings her "strong gene pool for the arts" to both Battle Ground and Prairie High Schools where she inspires students to amazing theatrical heights.

She is Claire Cornish Verity. 

Verity began directing shows at Battle Ground High School six years ago and at Prairie four years ago. She currently teaches drama classes, technical theater and creative writing at Prairie High and directs the theater productions at both schools. She will also begin teaching dance this coming fall.

She began her educational career as "Drama Adviser" under a "conditional certificate" for her life experience, but was urged by her principal to obtain her Masters in Education so she could teach full-time. She received her Masters in Secondary Education, graduating Summa Cum Laude, from Jones
International University of Colorado in 2010.

Her life experience

Verity directs "White Christmas"
At first it was dancing; she did not pursue theater while in high school as her father did not encourage it. He believed "children should be at home playing outside." None-the-less she found herself touring as a dancer during those years. It wasn't until college that she got involved in the dramatic arts. She chose a school where she could remain close to her father and, for the most part, gave up dance for the time being. She began performing theatrically and, after a while, in her late twenties or early thirties, she became an interior designer in New York, married and began a family.

Eventually, with a third child and wishing to spend more time with her children, she spoke with her husband about being a "stay-at-home mom." He said, "Not in New York," (the expense of living in the city required two incomes) and they moved out west. As her children grew, a soccer mom friend told her about the Drama Adviser opening for the Battle Ground School District. She applied, on condition she could bring her children to work with her, and got the job. Consequently,  two of her three children are now working actors (one appeared in last fall's Grimm)--fourth generation theater family.

"At the time," she said, "it never occurred to me to work with children, [but] I knew after directing these kids for five minutes, I knew this was where I was supposed to be." And that's what she's been doing ever since.

Her teaching

"Directing high school students," she has said, "is the first thing I have done, other that being a mom, that I love as much as I loved performing." Verity finds satisfaction in teaching students to reach inside themselves and find their best.

Sure, there are naturally talented individuals within every school, but high school productions seldom are great. I've seen many that made me wish I hadn't gone. But Verity says, "you can teach anyone to act" [even dance] if you work with them and help them believe in and challenge themselves--inspiring them to "want to win." 

Verity's students seem to excel at theater. Their performances are top notch--some of the best shows in Southwest Washington. So how does she do it? How is she able to inspire her students and pull from the the very best performance?

She's tough, but she also loves and believes in her students. You can see it in their interaction. How they speak to one another as equals. How they hug and feel comfortable around each other. She challenges and corrects, encourages and makes her students think, but also disciplines. During rehearsals, if you aren't projecting, you drop and do ten push-ups.

Not all of her students are up to the challenge and don't continue, but most see her as just wanting the best for them. She said, "It's not my job to be liked...I've made kids cry." She admits to being "incredibly controlling [and] competitive."

How she does it

"You have to want to win," she said. And that is how she inspires.

She doesn't believe in mediocrity and sees that mindset as one of the major problems in education and society. She admits to being hard on her students. "I know what you're capable of," she tells them, "better then what you know what you're capable of." With that she earns student respect and it seems they will go to the ends of the earth for her.

Students will give her ten to twenty hours of after school time a week to hone their craft and become excellent at being the best they can be. Non-dancers will master amazing routines. Actors will pull off stunning performances. Backstage personnel will spend hours toiling to put on a flawless show. Singers fine-tune their chops [under the direction of Darcy Schmidt]. And all do it with heart and soul. They work hard and play hard, but Verity stresses it's not all fun and games. She runs rehearsals like a professional theater, she said, taking into account that she is working with students just beginning to understand what professionalism really is. She strives to help students truly appreciate the craft. 

After every rehearsal and performance she gives notes (critiques and tips) to her students. "I think," she said with animation, "this is part of the key to our success."

The program is rigorous and disciplined. Upper classmen help set the standard of excellence for the newbies. During rehearsals Verity stops the performance giving direction and calling her students to go deeper--to search within themselves for some life experience that will bring motivation to the action or character. She runs from the back of the auditorium to the front, hurdles the stage, gestures wildly, bangs on the floor and compliments with enthusiasm.

Why she does it

Believing in her students, loving what she does, wanting to win, and the appreciation for the craft are what makes Verity invest all that she is into her job. And that's what makes her and the Prairie Ground productions the special things that they are.

Soren Gillaspy, a 2010 graduate now pursuing a theater degree at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts, said that his former instructor "inspires respect [for her] knowledge and professional experience." He returns when he is able to assist students because of what the program, and Verity, did for him.

Verity loves her job. She said, "I think you're incredibly blessed if you love your work." Her mother always told her, "Do what you love and do it well." And she, and her students, do it well.

Prairie Ground's next show is "Wilder, Wilder, Wilder" three short plays (The Long Christmas DinnerPullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden) by Thornton Wilder, 7 p.m., January 31, February 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. Tickets are available at In the spring they will present "Once Upon a Mattress."

By Gregory E. Zschomler
Photos provided


  1. Amen amen and amen! Claire is one of the best teachers I have ever known, and her students go on to excel in their fields of study from Arts to zoology at prestigious universities. We in BGSD are so grateful for Claire's passion and follow through!

  2. Thanks Lisa. And that just goes to: A) Show how important the Arts are in education, B) argue for merit pay, and C) beg the question: Why hasn't Verity been nominated for (or won) the "Teacher of the Year" award?

  3. I never did see this reply until you quoted it this morning--we had already sent in the nomination on January 7th! Thank you for all your terrific support of Prairie Ground and all of the high school theaters, community and professional theater in our area. We appreciate it!