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A family man, a community member, a director, a mentor

By Staff | Nov 19, 2017

Clay Miller stands in front of an empty stage as his final musical production has come to a close. Miller has spent 33 years producing plays for the USC School District.

We open this scene with a young man in a small town in Minnesota. Minnesota Lake, to be exact. Our young protagonist is in school with his classmates. It is announced in the seventh grade classroom that classes will no longer be doing their own drama productions, but rather, a drama club will be forming for grades 7-12. The young boy goes for it. He signs up. This is where the whole story begins.

Little did young Clay Miller know that signing up for drama club at his school in Minnesota Lake would lead him to a lifetime of on-stage productions that would not only impact his own life, but thousands of others.

Fast forward. We see the young Miller boy grow, participating in more school productions, getting intrigued more and more by music. He learns to play guitar, learns to sing, makes friends. The young man graduates high school with friends who form a cover band. They play small, local gigs; changing their band name a few times.

The protagonist learns about lighting and sound to set the mood on stage as he and the band continue to play music. His fan base begins to grow.

At twenty-something years old, he is approached by someone at United South Central Schools after being seen in a community production of “Bye, Bye Birdie.” He is asked if he would like to help with a play production.

[Internal monologue] What’s one play production? I’ve learned so much about plays and performing through my experience as a student, and as a musician on stage. I’ve been itching for a new creative outlet. What’s the harm?

Clay: I’ll do it.

USC: Okay great! By the way, you don’t know it yet, but you’ll be helping us for 33 years. Looking forward to it.

Clay: Wait…wha?

Though Miller says he did not know he would be the stage director for USC’s drama productions for 33 years, from 1984 to 2017, he does say he would do it all over again.

During his last production, Clay Miller’s students presented a slide show of thank yous, gratitudes, and fond memories on a projector screen just before “Shrek the Musical” took to stage. Students, who now have families and careers of their own, reflected fondly over their time spent with the USC drama department. Even Miller’s own son, Joey Miller, is now a professional actor who has had presence on many stages, including the Ordway Theatre.

“I would tell my students when they were on the stage to remember you are giving yourself to your community; your friends, your family, and your God,” says Miller. “You have the opportunity to share a little laughter in a hurting world and help those in the audience forget their troubles and be engulfed in a different story, a different life, if only for an hour or so.”

For Miller, creating a dramatic or musical production is, in essence, creating a family. Students come together to rehearse they share their frustrations, they celebrate their victories of remembering lines, acting out scenes, singing new notes they could not sing before, and they create a bond all their own.

While Miller helped students with their productions, he was also raising a family with his wife, Sharyn.

“All of my kids grew up with the stage,” he says. “Rehearsals take up a good chunk of time every evening during the week and practically all day Saturday. When Sharyn needed a break from taking care of our kids, I’d bring them with me to rehearsals on Saturdays.”

Miller says he and his stage family would work on all components of theater, not just memorizing lines and songs.

“We work on all aspects of theater together stage building, lighting, sound, choreography. And we are not always lucky enough to have a choreographer like we were with our last production,” says Miller, who had his son come in to direct the choreography for his last show. “I remember many years we had student choreographers for the productions. We all brought something to the table and worked together to create a quality production.”

And some of that quality comes from within.

“I think I demand or expect more of the students than what they think they have, and once I pull that out of them, they begin to see what they can pull out of themselves whether it’s singing, or dancing, memorizing lines, whatever. Once they see what they truly have inside themselves, I’m always amazed how it all comes out opening night,” says Miller.

And that, he says, was his favorite part of all of his productions: seeing his vision with stage set, sound, lights, actors and choreography come together.

“The most fun is always after Friday night the first show. You see the kids have this energy of, ‘we did it!’ and you get that exhilaration from them, too,” he says with a smile. “It was always difficult to see a rehearsal take a few steps back, but being able to work through those hurdles with the students made the final production all the more satisfying.”

Miller says he will now be able to go to more family outings and community gatherings that he didn’t have time to go to before. He and his wife will have more time to travel and visit their four children; Kirstyn Wegner (37), Tamera Miller (32), Jillian Wirth (30), and Joey (27), and even a new grandbaby who will soon make their debut in the world.

We cut to an empty stage, one single spotlight on the main protagonist as he holds a small flickering torch. The production is complete, the stage disassembled. It is only him and his stage.

Narrator: And now, the future lies within the students and staff of the school at USC. Perhaps the new stage director will be a familiar face, perhaps not. Perhaps the productions will be just as grandiose as the past 33 years. No one knows what the future will hold, not even Clay Miller.

Clay: We have seen our student population change, we have seen the community involvement become a little less each year. What I hope doesn’t change in the years to come for USC drama is the feeling I had not only as a director, but as a student the feeling of finding purpose. I hope future students can go above and beyond to find their hidden talents they didn’t know they had. I hope they find themselves in a deeper way.

It’s time to pass the torch.

The spotlight begins to fade, Clay Miller takes his leave, his footsteps being heard as he walks off stage left. He leaves his torch, flickering as it burns out.

A shadowed figure crosses the stage from the right, picking up the torch and reigniting it.

End scene.