Curtain call for Krista Elhai

by Andrew Alonzo |

After 37 years of teaching, during which she has overseen countless high school productions, earned a space in the National Educational Theater Association Hall of Fame, and even abandoned an attempt at retirement last year, Claremont High School alumna and theater director Krista Elhai is finally lowering the curtain on her educational career.

Speaking with the COURIER via phone, Ms. Elhai elaborated about how she was ready to call it quits and retire last year, formally submitting all of her retirement paperwork and even having a successor in mind.

However, as March came and students were still not in school due to COVID-19, the director said she grew anxious. Not because CHS’s final three productions had been canceled, but because the learning experience was stripped away for both new and veteran actors.

“I was concerned…the pass-down knowledge between the kids, and a lot of the experience of those three last big shows was lost,” she said.

Though she was willing to let that bad experience go, as her retirement was practically set in stone, Ms. Elhai said CHS Principal Brett O’Connor and former Superintendent Dr. Jim Elsasser began persuading her to stay for one more year. Although she was not interested at the time, she eventually ended up making a deal to stay on for a final year at CHS, but only on the condition that they not ask her to stay for another year after that. She laughed as she said it was a fair deal.

Reminiscing on how she fell in love with theater, she said her first taste of the stage was in ballet at age five.

It was not until Ms. Elhai reached the ninth grade that she became interested in theater production. A musical theater class offered in the summer. “So I signed up and I did the summer show…which was the summer of ’74 I think. [I] really enjoyed it and I did every single show from then until the time I graduated four years later. So I was really involved with theater.”

After she graduated in 1978, she put theater aside and began studying pre-law in college, but that program did not last long.

She missed theater so much that after a discussion with her father she eventually switched majors to theater education and transferred to Winona State University in Minnesota.

Following graduation, she traded the freezing temperatures of Minnesota for the sunshine of California, moving back to begin her first teaching job at Hemet High School.

Ms. Elhai then applied at her high school alma mater, got the job in September 1993 and has remained at the school for 27 years overseeing hundreds of musicals and plays.

Three productions over the years, including one in 2021 titled “Distance Learning,” have been included in the International Thespian Festival. Two previous shows that also made it to ITF’s main stage were “The Secret Garden” in 2007 and the musical “Starmites” in 2011.

“Those were certainly times that I felt like it took the entire village to get everything working,” she said.

Her favorite shows saw the cast learn exciting new skills. “We did a production of 42nd Street… It was a cast of 75 and they all learned how to tap dance for the show,” she said. “We have flown Peter Pan in that theater [Bridges Auditorium]. All of my kids were trained by a professional rigging company on safely flying the characters.”

Ms. Elhai also received numerous accolades, including a slot in the California Thespian Hall of Fame and, in 2008, was named the California Educational Theater Association Teacher of the Year.

Although Ms. Elhai has been both a teacher and student at CHS, she said she could name more ways that theater has not changed rather than has changed.

“I think it’s the broad offerings that there [are now at CHS] that offers something for everybody,” she said. “It just depends what your interest is.”

One factor that has remained constant in the worlds of both theater and teaching has been the teenagers’ high energy and goofy antics, she explained, adding that every day the kids give her something new to laugh about.

“I still love kids! I mean last year was great kids, this year was great kids, 25 years ago it was great kids,” she said. “They make me look forward to being there.”
Ms. Elhai said that one of the things she will miss will be working with the teenagers and seeing their enthusiasm for the world of theater.

“The kids that have never done theater in their life…seeing how much they really enjoy it and how much they change as a person. Some of them develop into amazing leaders, some of them become incredible designers, some of them just become more comfortable humans in their own skin,” she explained.

Although it’s a curtain call for her teaching career, Ms. Elhai said she still has future plans involving theater.

“I was just recently elected incoming vice president, president of the Educational Theater Association, which is a national association of educators,” she explained. “So I will be doing that roughly for the next five years. And I’m on several theater boards in California…and I’m really excited to see my own grown kids’ shows. Sometimes my job got in the way of seeing their shows.”

Though CHS is losing both a valued member and a theater legend, Ms. Elhai said a new theater teacher has already been picked to replace her and is “pending board approval.”

But before Ms. Elhai’s time at CHS officially comes to an end, she will still oversee the production of CHS’s upcoming play, “Shrek the Musical Jr.” For information on the show and how to buy tickets, visit CHS’s Theater Department site. Admission for each performance will be $10, and proceeds from the shows will go to the CHS Theatre Department.



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