William Ragland, Palmetto High School’s full-time certified theater teacher, told students in his class Thursday not to “let your fears hold you back.”
“Improv is so much fun and terrifying at the same time,” Ragland told the group.
Ragland stood on the auditorium stage surrounded by his class and spoke in an animated voice as he explained the rules of a theatrical warm-up game that included improvisation and movement.
The Powdersville native was hired to start the first theater program in decades at the Williamston school. Ragland is no novice when it comes to the stage. He has been in 55 productions in Greenville community theaters, and last year, he started the Mill Town Players, a theater troupe in Pelzer.
Ragland said it was a tough decision for him to leave Woodmont High School in Greenville County, where he built an award-winning theater program from nothing. But he felt it was the right choice to change schools.
“I have developed an affinity for the underdog,” he said. “I don’t want to be at a school with all the resources. … I want to be at a school where I’m needed.”
The Palmetto High auditorium does not have a proper lighting system and will need to be updated for the new program. Ragland plans to convert his cream-colored classroom, which used to be the chorus room, into a multi-use, black box theater with a lighting grid in place of the ceiling and a sound board for class space, rehearsals and performances.
“I am literally starting out with nothing, and that is exactly where we need to start,” Ragland said. “I’m excited about making something out of nothing. That’s what you do in theater. You imagine, you create, you engage, and inspire different people to work together toward a common goal bigger than themselves, and to lift up the community to bring pride, energy and culture to a place that may have been devoid of it before.”
For the first few weeks of school, Ragland has been trying to connect with the school culture and with the students, he said.
“This year is all about engagement and putting down the foundation blocks of the new program that hopefully will grow and be successful and endure from this point forward,” he said.
The new Mustang Stage Company will participate in a state competition. The school has about two months to get ready for the South Carolina Theater Association High School Festival in early November.
This year, Ragland teaches six Theater I classes. He hopes to offer Theater II classes starting next year.
“I predict every year we will add a new course of some kind until we have Theater I-IV and a technical theater class,” he said.
“It’s not just about training good actors and putting on great high school shows, it’s about giving these kids skills to make them stronger and better versions of themselves, so they’ll be ready for whatever life throws them,” he said.
After a show at the South Carolina Children’s Theater in Greenville, the superintendent of Greenville County Schools asked Ragland if he thought about being a teacher because he worked well with the children.
“I said ‘No, thank you,’ ” Ragland said. “I had witnessed the stress level of what it took to be a teacher. But he would not give up.”
Ragland attended classes to earn a teaching certification and began teaching kindergarten and first grade art at Bryson Elementary School in a portable that had been vandalized.
“I started with nothing,” he said. “I had a great mentor. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a perfect fit.”
He then taught art at Sue Cleveland Elementary School, also in Greenville County, in for four years.
“During this whole time, I was in plays in Greenville,” Ragland said. “I would do these shows at the children’s theater which would have been wonderful for my students to see, but they couldn’t because of the price and the distance.”
That’s when he decided to begin directing plays that were more affordable at Greenville schools, to give students a different opportunity. He was recruited to start a theater program at Woodmont High.
The program grew, and in 2012, the school won the state theater competition.
Ragland and the administration hopes to build a similar program at Palmetto High.
“That’s the fun part,” said Assistant Principal Jason McCauley. “We get to see the program grow from a seed.”
McCauley has known Ragland since high school, and also worked with him at Woodmont for several years as well, witnessing the growth of the drama program.
“He is very passionate about his craft,” McCauley said. “His passion is contagious, and he is able to share that passion with the students.”