Whether they arrive with a passion for acting or because it’s the only thing that fits in their schedule, Union Pines students come away from theater with a lot more than a few memorized lines and flair for the dramatic.
For three decades, Judy Osborne’s classes have given kids a place, an identity and a sense of savoir-faire that can be hard to come by on a high school campus.
During Osborne’s tenure, Union Pines’ theater program has grown from a single class to one of the strongest in the state. She’s had 15 honors theater classes qualify to perform at the N.C. Theater Conference’s annual State Play Festival.
On retirement, it’s not a star student, one of her trophy case-worth of awards, or even a favorite play or musical among the dozens she’s directed over the last 30 years, that stands out as the pinnacle of her career.
Osborne’s real contribution to education is still playing out in the lives of former students who invested in a theatrical production as total strangers and came out for the final curtain call close friends; in the students who first explored the full range of their abilities in the Union Pines auditorium; in the students who rose to the occasion when they least expected it.
“I wish I could put into words how great a person she is,” said Kim Fielder-Jones, who graduated from Union Pines in 1994.
“There are teachers you remember, who make impacts on your life and are there at the right moment — high school teachers especially. Those are such tough years, but if you have the right teacher who can see something in you and encourages you, she’s pretty special.”
Fielder-Jones has directed the theater program at North Moore High for the last seven years. Her time includes a win at the state play festival in 2017.
She started stage managing Union Pines’ productions as a student, but quickly found that Osborne inspired her to direct.
“I knew once I started stage managing that I wanted to direct for her,” said Fielder-Jones, “because I admired what she could do, and how many people she could make smile on a daily basis.”
Finding Her Role
Osborne’s last show as Union Pines’ theater director — on the stage dedicated in her name last year — was an intimate musical performance of “Mamma Mia!” for parents and family members in early March as restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic loomed.
But in a way it’s fitting that Osborne’s career ended as it began: on an informal note.
As a student at East Carolina University, Osborne majored in theater with every intention of becoming a professional stage manager. But when her father got wind of that plan, a compromise was struck: theater education.
She came to Moore County Schools in the late 1980s, where her first jobs in the school system included filling in for other teachers on leave, teaching an English class as needed, and teaching a theater elective at the elementary school level. When that program was eliminated, by all rights she should have been out of a job.
At the time, theater wasn’t yet a fixture at Union Pines. But Osborne, who grew up in Wilmington, knew what it was for a high school student to have a home in theater class. And by a lucky communication glitch at the district level, Osborne had already had her contract extended to the next year.
That’s when she started teaching full-time at Union Pines: mostly English at first, with one theater course. It took a few years for her to build the program to the point that she could teach it exclusively.
“It took some time to build interest, get kids through the first course and get them to want to stay for the next one. I am truly proud that that happened,” she said.
“It’s a little bit ironic that, here 30 years later, the only reason I had this wonderful career is that someone else made a mistake. There are happy accidents in this world and I think my career was one of those happy accidents.”
Another way of putting it: the stars aligned.
Stars Are Born
Under Osborne’s direction, students from Union Pines have consistently earned high honors at N.C. Theater Conference play festivals. In 2005, they won the Distinguished Play award at the state level festival and went on to compete against the top high schools from a dozen other states at the Southeastern Theater Conference Festival.
This past year, Union Pines’ production of “Badger,” about a group of World War II-era female ordnance workers, was the state level runner-up. Typical of Union Pines’ past competition plays, it featured what’s called an ensemble cast. Rather than shows with two or three dominant characters, Osborne prefers plays that feature a host of diverse characters.
“We’ve always worked with what I call an ensemble ethic, which means we work as a unit, everyone’s contribution is valued, and together we create art,” said Osborne. “Not just singly, because we have a star or because we have a director, but it’s something we have done together.”
Her students came away with recognitions for everything from acting to choreography and sound design. But the C.C. Lipscomb Excellence in Directing Award went to Osborne herself.
According to Fielder-Jones, that’s well-deserved, and Osborne’s successes as an ensemble director are a testament to her ability to key into the strengths of a few dozen students at once to give everyone their time in the spotlight.
“When you’ve got a cast of 35 kids, you’re making sure that each actor finds who that character is, and that they had their moment to shine,” said Fielder-Jones. “Everything she does ties into this beautiful, cohesive production when it’s completed — and that’s hard to do. She’s great at it because she knows her students so well.”
Mackenzie Francisco, Union Pines Class of 2015, was once on the receiving end of one of Osborne’s votes of confidence too. Never one to describe herself as a “theater person,” she was accidentally enrolled in Osborne’s introductory theater class as a sophomore.
But her schedule change form never made it to the school office.
“I ended up taking every theatre class Union Pines had to offer, and the auditorium became one of my favorite places,” said Francisco.
“Mrs. O made everyone feel like someone, but if you were to tell her that, she'd laugh and shrug it off like she didn't do anything that special because that's just who she is. She's humble. She is UP Stage.”
Francisco was always a happy member of the performance ensemble — until her senior year, when added responsibility is the last thing most students are interested in. That spring, Union Pines put on a performance of “Seussical the Musical.”
Along with giving Francisco a role, complete with lines the audience could hear, Osborne put her in charge of designing and painting the set.
“She had zero knowledge of any of my artistic ability but just said she thought I would do a good job,” Francisco recalled.
“I was extremely skeptical of my capabilities as a performer and a set designer, but if Mrs. Osborne thought I could handle it, then I could handle it.”
What They Take Away
Osborne’s past awards include the N.C. Theater Conference’s Theater Educator Award in 2006 and Herman Middleton Distinguished Service Award in 2012. In 2009, nominations from former students attending N.C. State led to her receiving the university’s Inspirational Teacher Award.
“Those awards are highly meaningful to me because I feel it pushed me to be a better director, a better teacher, to demand more from my students and I think they responded really well to it,” Osborne said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m graduating all of my talent. Then the next year the kids decide they have to step up and it’s like ‘where have you been hiding?’”
Along the way, she’s become one of the state’s most vocal advocates for arts education, through service on the NCTC board of directors and with the statewide ARTS NC nonprofit. Because for all of the accolades for acting and costume design, it’s their mastery of memorization and comfort with the “ready or not, here we go” of opening night that will serve students in college and beyond.
“Most of my students do not go on to become theater professionals. A lot of them do pursue it for a while after school and find their way into other things, but I can tell you that they’ve learned more about working as a team than they ever thought they would, they’ve gained self-confidence, they’ve learned they can do things that they never thought they could.”