Sweeney2She writes, she directs, she sings: Suzanne Sweeney leads her actors in warm-up vocal exercises before a recent rehearsal for this weekend’s show.


Sitting alone in an otherwise empty auditorium, Suzanne Sweeney watches from the fourth row as, yet again, a student on stage over-emotes.

“Feel the pain in your eyes and slowly roll to the ground,” Sweeney calls out. “Not like you’ve been shot!” 

The student tries again. This time, after a perfect take, Sweeney whispers to herself, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”

It’s a small but satisfying moment for Sweeney, an English and drama teacher at Rumson Fair Haven Regional High School who has directed school plays for more than 20 years — or so she thinks. Heading into this week’s staging of “Into the Woods,” she’s lost track, she says.

“I don’t know,” she laughs. “I just keep coming back every year.”

Actually, she never really leaves, it seems. Each summer, Sweeney writes drafts of several plays, often taking classics and altering them so that she and her students can later develop them into new works.

Sweeney3“Snow White” and “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, were plopped down in new settings — Turkey and Asia, respectively. 

Once school resumes, Sweeney’s students have a go at the texts. 

“We edit, we change and we add dialogue,” she says. Students are fully involved in the remaking of the plays. 

Why change the classics? 

is a process,” says Sweeney, and reshaping plays is “educational theater.” Her students
participate and learn the creative process hands-on. Of course, “at
some point, we have to stop and show the audience,” she says.

But she’s not only the co-writer and the director; she’s a wrangler of actors. Before Sweeney became director, attendance for the plays was, “usually around 50 people,” she says. “The irony, is there were not even enough cast members for the first play,” which required only twelve students. 

So Sweeney sent her actors to the school’s athletic events and told them to “ask injured kids to be in the show instead of sitting on the sidelines. I got the cast I needed and then some,” she says. 

Two decades and 40 plays later, attendance and participation has skyrocketed. Between 500 and 700 people fill the audience per night for each of the shows’ three performances.  More than 100 students are involved, taking roles in everything from set building to costumes and program creation.

“I don’t turn any student away who wants to participate,” says Sweeney.

Sweeney’s love of the theater, and directing, can be traced to her days as a fifth-grader at St. Mary’s elementary school in South River, where she convinced the principal to
put on a winter show.

“I made snow and we ice skated,” she remembers. After that, “my job from fifth- to eighth grade was to put on the spring
and winter production.” She’s been hooked ever since.

“She is a very demanding director,” says R-FH production coordinator Jeanne Johnson, who has worked with Sweeney for seven years. “She demands a lot from [the students], which is why we always put on marvelous plays. We are known for our plays.”

Sweeney, who lives in Colts Neck, is thoroughly schooled in the world of the stage, having earned a masters degree in theater education from New York University, where she acted, directed, and choreographed.

But she is never finished learning, she says, and makes annual trips overseas, where she adds to her knowledge at such vaunted institutions as Trinity College in Dublin and Oxford University.

“Almost every summer, I go to school to become a student, so I can help my students,” she says. “Its their journey, and we have to guide them.”   

This spring’s R-FH production, “Into the Woods” runs Friday through Sunday. For ticket information and show times call 732.842.1597 x300, or visit the school website.

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