Editor's note: Below is a remembrance of retired El Cerrito High School theater director and teacher Roger Anderson, who died Dec. 8 at age 69. It was written by former student and friend Bonnie Sarmiento. Following Sarmiento's tribute are comments Patch received from El Cerrito High Principal David Luongo, school librarian Laney Johnson and former student Daniel Kossut.
Beloved ECHS Theater Director Leaves a Legacy
By Bonnie Sarmiento
This weekend, December 22nd (8 PM) and 23rd (7 PM), generations of students will gather at Club Mallard in Albany to remember their beloved friend and teacher, Roger Mark Anderson.
If I hadn’t known Roger, I don’t think I ever would have developed any sense of humor. Even in his last year, while he was fighting bone cancer, he still laughed, and tried to amuse me with his misadventures over the phone. “They told me to stay in bed, but as soon as I was alone I tried to get up and do stuff. I barely took two steps and then I fell and knocked over the whole damn bookshelf! Books flew all over the place!” He chuckled. “So now they really won’t let me up.”
His spirit filled me with joy, but inside my heart was breaking. I want to tell him, “Roger, I was going to come see you this very week. I wanted to come see you in the hospital, the way you came to see me in the hospital when I was 16. I wanted you to know how much it meant to me that you came. When I was a kid you were my hero. And you still are. I was going to come for Christmas. I thought you would make it until Christmas.”
Roger passed away on December 8, 2012, in peace and surrounded by his family in Jacksonville, Oregon. He is survived by his wife, Julie, daughter, Hadley, stepson Steve, son-in-law, Alex, and grandson, Emmett.
Roger was born on September 7, 1943 in Houston, Texas. Ella Mae Anderson adopted him and raised him from infancy. He moved to San Francisco in the 1960s, attending SFSU and working in theater and as a filmmaker. He taught English in Japan, and then returned to SFSU for his MFA in the 1980s. He began his career in teaching Theater and English to high school adolescents at De Anza (1987) and El Cerrito High School (1991 – 2006). In 1984 Roger married Juliet Anderson and together they opened the Montessori Children’s House of Albany, which they ran until retirement in 2006. While Roger lived a quiet country life since retirement, his teaching career and passion for theater were far from ordinary.
“Roger had this rubber chicken that he'd keep next to him at his Director's desk and… if he caught you spacing out onstage he'd throw it at you. How do you know you're not in the moment? When you get unexpectedly beaned in the head by a rubber chicken,” says Rebecca White, a former student and now professional actress. She also recalls Roger taping Ashkon to the stage to make him stand still, and making Nick hold a hammer in each hand to stop him from fidgeting.
“Have more fun or you will bore me to tears,” he used to say. And any time a student came to him with excuses, they would barely begin “But I – “ before he would recite: “If ifs and buts were cherries and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”
Roger treated us as professional actors, and challenged us to the highest degree. There were many late nights at rehearsals, chugging Red Bull backstage. He despised most musicals – absolutely detested plays where characters have to sing about every. stupid. thing. He chose instead the most ambitious and controversial texts available. Some years after graduation, I met José Rivera and told him what it was like for me to play the lead in his play ‘Marisol’ (the play is apocalyptic, nightmarish, and occasionally funny). His reaction was, “WHAT? They let you do that play in a high school?”
One time, I was sent to a museum for homework. We were there not to observe the paintings, but to observe the people who were observing the paintings. This was character preparation for the comedy “Museum” by Tina Howe. Another time, he made us sit on the stage in the dark for a whole hour, listening to a bizarre soundtrack of horses galloping, trumpets blowing, rivers running. The imagination took off and I lost track of time. It seemed as though I was dreaming. This was for “A Dream Play” by August Strindberg.
Roger was known and respected by professional theater companies in the bay area. His productions made no compromises. He would hire a professional voice coach and make us learn the IPA in order to get a specific accent right. He would order authentic masks from Italy. He hired a professional fight choreographer for Rashomon, a Japanese crime drama marked with samurai swords, kimonos, rape and murder trials, marriage disputes and face paint. He paid infinite attention to the set and the lighting, pushing his technical theater students to perfection.
Roger’s students have gone on to become professional actors, directors, playwrights, authors, teachers, and theater technicians. Even those who did not pursue a career in theater remark on the incredible impact Roger had in their life and their self-expression.
“When I think about Mr. Anderson, I think about the incredible spiritual message he gave me. He was one of the trainers of my future, bringing me into my own and helping me to find confidence when I was so removed from it. He made the world my stage.” - Crystal Blanton, author
“To this day, he's the best director I've ever worked with. He challenged me. He kept it so damn real with all of us, and made me realize at a young age that theater and art could and should be taken seriously.” - Ashkon Davaran, actor and musician
In an email Roger sent to me in 2008, he said, “I realize that the relationships I've had with students are far more important than the plays we produced. I have to say I miss teaching and I miss theatre work, but mostly I miss the people.”
We miss you too, Roger. We miss you a damn lot.
For memorial information, contact Bonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org
Comment from Principal David Luongo on behalf of the staff at El Cerrito High
Roger Anderson was a well respected teacher at El Cerrito High School for many years. Our caring thoughts and loving memories go out to his family and friends. Roger will be remembered for the wonderful work he did with the theater program and the positive influence he had on many of our teachers, particularly the teachers in the English Department.
Comment from Head Librarian Laney Johnson
He was a teacher who wanted to make sure the students read. When they came to our library, he wouldn't let them check out a book unless it was 200 pages. He made sure they read classical books. He was one of the great teachers.
"Memories of Roger..."
By Daniel Kossut
He was an amazing man, with an incredible sense of humor. I did Four Main Stage productions with him during my time at El Cerrito High School, and they are my fondest memories of my High School years.
He was hilarious, brilliant and had an amazingly twisted sense of humor. I remember how intense he was, and how truly seriously he took his job. And he truly loved it. We spent countless hours in late night rehearsals perfecting our shows before opening night.
I took him very seriously and his approval and acceptance was extremely important to me. I remember when working on one of our last shows together, “Sister Mary Ignacious explains it all for you” by Christopher Durang. I had very few lines and I stood almost still on stage for the whole hour and a half.
My whole character relied on my facial expressions. All of us wanted to make him laugh. Sometimes it proved difficult, but when you genuinely made him laugh it was one of the best feelings in the world. There was a point in the show that my character made a ridiculous face. And all of a sudden he just completely cracked up! He couldn’t stop laughing for a couple minutes. His eyes were tearing up and it was one of those rare times that he had to remove his glasses and wipe the tears from his eyes. He said to me “Daniel, your F***ing expressions are hilarious, make sure you keep doing that” and he kept laughing.
That was one of the best moments I can remember. I loved that man, and he taught me and so many other people so much. His impact on so many lives is a wonderful legacy.