Twelve senior members of Princeton Day School's faculty and staff retired in June. This profile of Middle School theater teacher Deb Sugarman is the ninth in our series on these long-serving and much-beloved faculty and staff members. (The most recent profile is of Upper School history and religion teacher Bill Stoltzfus, which you can read here.)
Here is the profile of Deb Sugarman, as told by Stan Cahill, Upper School theater teacher and artist-in-residence.
Directly across from my office is Room 152: Deb's Room. At first glance, it is an unremarkable room. Its white walls and whiteboards are always empty. The tables are pushed to the side and the shelves are half-filled with mismatched items...
In the center of the room, there sits a circle of chairs, maybe a few cubes.
Those of us who work in the theater know that it all starts with the circle. Maybe it stems from our earliest beginnings, huddled around the campfire for warmth with nothing more than an urge to share stories.
There is an undeniable potential in the circle of chairs that sits in Room 152.
Daily, a steady stream of excited young artists rush past my office through the door to find their seat in that magic circle. For eleven years, I have seen this happen three, four times daily. Sometimes more. Strange noises emerge from that room. And rising above that barely-controlled mayhem is the unmistakable laugh of Deb Sugarman.
Don't be fooled. Deb does not give that laugh up easily. One has to earn it. You see, her laugh is a response that has been honed after years in the trenches. Sleeves rolled up, fingernails dirty with paint, dye and strange adhesives, no one can dig into a joke like Deb. It's in her blood. Literally. Deb's bloodlines run straight to Curly and Moe Howard. When you get a laugh out of Deb, you know you've earned it. And, daily, I hear our young artists earning that laugh bit after bit, gag after gag, moment after moment.
I have grown to rely on that laugh. Along with Deb's numerous titles over her 17 years at PDS, including Department Chair, Dean, Whitlock Award Winner, Master Baker of Birthday Cakes, Deb has spent the last eight years designing costumes for Upper School productions. I'm always a little nervous when she steps into the rehearsal room to take some costume notes—like her students, I wait for the laugh. It tells me that I've nailed a moment, a bit, a gag. I don't always get it. But at some point, Deb will find me in the back of the house, touch me on the shoulder to let me know "It's Gonna Work."
Deb is the one who makes this stuff look so easy. Eighty cast members are no problem for Deb; in fact, there's always room for one more. For 17 years, Deb has created a home in the theater. A safe place. A home where any child, no matter how shy or flamboyant, can try on a new identity. A safe spot to land when everything else has fallen apart.
And that laugh.
She knows. Deb wasn't teaching kids how to act. She wasn't teaching kids how to perform or to become a character. All along, she's been teaching kids how to be Themselves.
For Deb, there's always been room for one more. Yearly, she has given us the gift of yet another batch of fearless young artists, ready to stand in the middle of the stage and shout into the darkness, "I'm here. This is my story."
It's been an absolute joy to work alongside such a gifted teaching artist and storyteller.
And I will be sure to keep that circle of chairs set in the middle of Deb's Room. Be sure to stop by some time— because, as Deb knows, there is always room for one more.Did I mention that laugh?