There was that one time when a foreign exchange student didn’t realize that “dress shoes” were men’s shoes, not shoes for women to wear with a dress. And that one time when the dog that starred in the production ran away during a break. Or the time a student was told to “kiss the microphone” so people could hear him better and he delivered by planting a big old smooch on mic.
“There are always the laughs,” said Tom Armitage, who has been teaching drama at North Central High School since 1979.
Now the 62-year-old is putting on “Doll Shop” one last time before packing away the manuscripts and retiring at the end of the school year.
He takes pride that North Central produces its own plays, complete with student-designed lighting and costumes, set design, actors and a pit full of high school musicians.
“I really believe it’s school all the way, the kids do it all,” Armitage said. “Some schools pay $60,000 for a professional production, but I don’t like it when it’s taken away from the kids like that.”
He lovingly calls his students “kids.” They call him “Armo.”
The thing Armitage will miss most about teaching is what he calls the constant stream of new friendships.
“I can’t quite wrap my mind around how that’s stopping,” he said. “You have students and then they graduate and then you stay friends with some of them. I will miss that.”
One student-turned-friend is Tim Collins, class of 1981.
“We called him the stagecoach,” said Collins. “He made school fun, and he was just such a great influence.”
Collins ran the lights on what he calls a big old switchboard full of dimmers and switches.
“I had to use my hands and feet to run that thing,” Collins said.
What does he remember best about Armitage?
“He absolutely is a perfectionist, but he wasn’t a little dictator,” Collins said. “There was always an enthusiasm – he infected us with that worldview.”
Armitage’s students perform in Chicago and New York City, and they fill the stages at local theaters, too.
Born and raised in Spokane, Armitage graduated from Shadle High School in 1973. He attended Eastern Washington University where he got a degree in broadcasting in 1977 and theater education in 1979.
He did theater in high school and college, but it was a haunted house he put on for a local radio station and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1977 that helped him make up his mind on a career.
“It was on that what used to be Canada Island,” Armitage said. “And it was really fun. That’s when I thought I should be a teacher.”
Armitage also had a one-time stint as Santa Claus at the Shadle Shopping Center.
“I didn’t get peed on once, and it paid for my Christmas,” Armitage said, laughing.
When he started his career at North Central the school was between drama teachers. Under the tutelage of Dennie Crowe, Armitage’s first play was called “Crisscross Lovers.”
“It was just a silly school play, but it was great fun,” Armitage said.
Over the decades, Armitage has been active in many areas of Spokane theater. He’s taught drama camp at Spokane Civic Theatre, where he’s also acted and directed.
In 1981, Armitage was one of the founders of the Inland Northwest Theatre Arts Festival, a workshop-focused festival for high school students that’s still running today.
Armitage will stay involved with INTAF this summer, trying to land some good workshops for the students.
In 1990, Armitage completed a Master of Fine Arts in theater directing at the University of Idaho.
Spokane actor and director Susan Hardie said she took a master class that Armitage offered back then.
“That class still influences my directing work to this day,” Hardie wrote in a Facebook comment. “He has instilled a love and appreciation of theater to thousands of kids. He is a true inspiration – and a snappy dresser, too.”
Armitage said he looks forward to retirement mostly because it means not having a schedule. He will still be involved in theater, but be a little more picky about the projects he chooses.
“And I want to go see other people’s theater,” Armitage said.
He hopes to hit local high school productions, but also to travel and visit old students who are performing all over the country.
And about that dog that ran away? The dog was adopted from a local shelter to be part of a production of “Cheaper by the Dozen” in the 1980s. Part of the plan was to find the dog a home by letting theater goers apply to adopt it.
“It was a beautiful Irish setter-looking dog, just gorgeous,” Armitage said.
But it skipped campus during a break before a matinee performance.
“It was just gone,” Armitage said, and the student actors were heartbroken. “I usually have to tell them to be quiet backstage, but not this time: They just sat there with tears rolling.”
A student ran home and picked up his pet dog as a stand in.
New makeup was applied to correct the tear trails and the smudged mascara. And the show went on.
After the show, a student went up to use a phone near the office entrance and noticed the runaway dog sitting outside the door.
“He came back downstairs with the dog and it was like a rock star made his entrance,” Armitage said. “The girl who really wanted the dog got to adopt it and named it Goldie.”
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