Layton • When theatergoers arrived for a production of "Titanic: The Musical" at Layton High School several years ago, they were handed boarding passes with the name of a passenger on the doomed voyage. At the end of the play, they found out if their traveler lived or died.
"It was really quite a somber moment and people left thinking about what happened there," theater teacher and artistic director Dennis Ferrin said. "That was gratifying to me."
For 36 years, Ferrin's creativity and teaching skills have inspired thousands of young performers and helped make the Layton High School theater program a hit. Now, he's ready for his next act.
Ferrin, who turns 66 this month and lives in Centerville with his wife, will retire from teaching at the end of the school year but his theater career will still be going strong. He will continue to direct and design sets for Utah theater groups, including the CenterPoint Legacy Theatre in Centerville and Ogden's Terrace Plaza Playhouse and The Ziegfeld Theater.
Auditions for "Curtains," a main stage musical, were held last spring to select the nearly 100 students who will be a part of the production and three-times-a-week rehearsals began at the beginning of October.
His students say Ferrin knows how to bring out their individual talents. At a recent rehearsal of "Curtains," he complimented the young actors on their performances and made suggestions on how to do even better.
"I feel like he really connects with the students," said 16-year-old Nathan Kremin, who plays the composer of the show-within-the-show.
Bryce Richards, 16, who plays a police lieutenant and hopes to be on Broadway one day, said Ferrin is "awesome." Melanie Wright, 18, an aspiring opera singer, called him the greatest theater teacher she's had.
"I've been in seven shows, and all of them have been this amazing experience," said Wright, whose character takes over the leading lady role.
Ferrin, a native of Salt Lake City, earned an undergraduate degree at Utah State University and a master of fine arts in musical theater direction from Brigham Young University. He acted in high school and college but realized his real love was directing and designing sets.
He worked at junior highs in the Granite andDavisschool districts for five years before landing in 1976 at Layton High, where he has taught speech, acting, set design, production, film history and other theater arts classes. He spent a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Layton High theater department puts on four main shows a year the school play, a musical revue, a main stage musical and a spring musical. Except for a handful of times when a shortened version of the main stage musical was performed in a smaller production, Ferrin has not produced the same show twice.
Throughout the years, he's put on a mix of old standards and newer shows including "Carousel," "State Fair," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Les MisÃ©rables."
"I try to give them different experiences," Ferrin said.
He works with Musical Theater International (MTI) to get the rights to plays, which generally cost $6,000, a price that's based on the 1,685 seats in Layton High's theater. About 1,200 people typically attend a main stage musical performance.
"We're able to sell enough tickets to pay all the costs and have a nice cushion for next year," Ferrin said.
Regina Klitgaard, part of the 200-strong adult volunteer group that supports theater operations, said Ferrin enjoys a "highly influential" relationship with MTI.
"Consequently, he was always given the first opportunity to purchase the just-released licensing rights for shows such as 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aida,' 'Drowsy Chaperone,' 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' and many others," Klitgaard said. "As a result, Layton High's musical theater was cutting-edge and the first Utah location at which these productions were ever seen outside of Broadway."
Some of his students have gone on to musical or theatrical careers. Ferrin said about 15 of them are living in New York City and making a living in the field, while a few are directors in Baltimore and one student has been accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Two of Ferrin's five children are involved in theater: Son Shelby Ferrin directs plays at Utah theaters and daughter Emily Checketts who was a psychology teacher at Layton High for five years until she left recently to be a stay-at-home mom has done choreography for her father for years and is the stage manager for "Curtains."Checketts, who will be choreographing "Camelot" at the school, also will direct "Aida" at the Terrace Plaza Playhouse this summer, while Ferrin will do the sets for that show.
A current student also wants to follow in Ferrin's footsteps. Makall Chatwin, 18, who plays the star's understudy in "Curtains," said her dream is to perform on Broadway but she also has another goal in mind.
"I want to be a theater teacher," Chatwin said, "just because of the experience I've had here."
P This month, Layton High School is presenting "Curtains," a mystery set in 1959 Boston at the Colonial Theater, where "Robbin' Hood of the Old West" is being staged. The talent-free leading lady keels over dead, and the cast and crew are stuck at the theater while police try to solve the crime.
Performances will be held at 7 p.m. on March 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 in the Layton High auditorium, 440 Wasatch Drive. Ticket prices are $8 for adults, $7 for senior and $6 for children and students.
For more information, call the box office at 801-402-4888.