The show must go on: Mike Liebo’s decades of drama dedication


Sherry Landis

Mike Liebo has taught in the area for decades and continues to inspire students

Hudson Reynolds, Editor-in-Chief

Mike Liebo is a drama teacher at Judkins Middle School. He has taught drama there for over 40 years. He has also taught drama at Paulding Middle School for the last 8 years and he still teaches there today. While teaching at both of these schools, he has directed over 20 elementary school theatre productions at various schools throughout the Lucia Mar Unified School District. He has taught thousands of students and brought hundreds of them overseas to perform before sophisticated audiences such as private schools and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Euro Disney in Paris, and Sydney, Australia, and others. His students have scored jobs such as writing for Conan O’Brien, or starring on shows such as “Shadowhunters”, “Glee”, “Crazy Rich Asians”, and more. He even travelled the world with young Zac Efron, who went on to star in High School Musical among other Hollywood productions. 

For Liebo, it all started in junior high.

“I was involved in middle school. Junior high, they called it. In LA, we had a drama teacher that was a regular on the FBI show… so we were all intrigued about that. I had drama for two years there, and then I had drama for a couple years at the high school. But when I was in high school, they didn’t allow you to play sports and do drama…so I had to make a decision between sports and drama and I went with sports. And you know how I am now, I think kids should be able to do both,” said Liebo.

“I got into teaching almost accidentally. I was going into counseling, I was going to get a degree in marriage and family. And they offered me clinical hours and counseling to student-teach. So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that.’ And then I student-taught a class 42 years ago, and decided that I liked it way more. 

“The first class that I taught was a legal argumentation class at UCSB, when I was in graduate school. Then I taught at Cambria high school as an actual student-teacher for a semester and also went to Morro Bay high school to get what I needed for my counseling degree.

“Then I’ve [taught] ever since, you know, just one of those things that I was a natural for. And then of course, I’m pretty passionate about performing arts so it was a perfect thing to incorporate into school. It didn’t exist when I first started to teach forty years ago, there were no drama programs in the middle school, I think the high school had one. So I offered to teach a performing arts class and the rest is history there.”

Liebo’s past set him up perfectly to be a performing arts teacher. 

“My background is communications, and speech and debate. And pretty much if you are skilled at speech or debate, you know, you’ll be skilled at drama, although I’ve also been in plays my whole life, just drama to me has always just been the fun thing.”

Liebo’s high school experience gave him the insight needed to create a program that gave students the ability to follow their passions. By implementing the drama class during instructional hours, instead of after school, the students are still able to play sports. 

“I think success can be measured in different ways. And I think there’s a lot of people that succeed in unconventional ways. The kids who maybe aren’t getting recognition in school, because they don’t like school or whatever. And yeah, they’ll make sure they’re there and perform 100% in a production and have a successful experience. So, to me, that’s just as rewarding, a kid who’s finding the success on stage and maybe not in other places. It changes people when, you know, they feel they’re doing something well, so that is as satisfying as anything else in what I do.

“There’s 35 kids in [each] class and I want to make sure all of them feel like they’re contributing equally. And it’s interesting now with being in quarantine. We can’t perform anything on stage and who knows when. So drama, at least for me has shifted… trying to not do [full-size] performances on the internet. More or less just trying to develop every kid’s skill, with writing and speaking and monologues. I don’t know, I think that’s been going great. I like it a lot, and so do they.”

Liebo’s experience with teaching gave him the tools to adapt, and before long he was back to teaching his students important skills, like making light of tough situations.

“So as opposed to running production, and focusing on scenes, instead I am focusing on each kid individually. So the way you think about it is a kid doing a monologue, and every single kid is doing a monologue. It’s a bunch of performances like that. So it’s just one man material, or one woman. But what I am doing, which I think is going to come out remarkably well… the kids have been writing a lot about the COVID experience they’re having. So I’ve given them maybe 15 different written performances, revolving around the life they’re living now, and telling them to put a humorous slant on it, and eventually we’ll end up doing a production around COVID. In fact, it’s going to be called “Dear COVID.”

“When we went down to lockdown, we weren’t requiring kids to be online. I think some people were, I wasn’t. I just gave them written assignments to do and we looked them over and started to accumulate material on the COVID play I want to write. We were all thinking we’d be going back to school and that ended up just extending. Then, you know, the real online semester started this fall. Of course, the state required everyone to be online, and I’m not feeling real great about my computer skills, but as long as I can get online and see people, which I can, that’s all I need. So we just do typical assignments, like one of them, I had them write a brief melodrama, where the hero was the vaccine, and the villain was COVID. And the family was being affected by both. Then we just turn it into a melodrama.

“So I’m taking a bunch of vignettes like that. I have a scene going on that the kids are writing, I had them write the opening of an inauguration speech, where they were president with a premise being that nobody over the age of 14 can run for president, because children are way kinder than adults, inconsequently, you know. So I have the kid who’s making it a presidential address of the first 14 year old president of the United States. Perfect timing for that.

“Then the play itself, opens up with kids writing letters to COVID saying, “Can’t you just leave us alone? Dear COVID, my life has been horrible.” You know. So you can just imagine almost like the sketch comedy I have done for so long. So yeah, we are doing numerous vignettes about the COVID experience.”

This connection of current events to Liebo’s signature style of sketch comedy performance seems to have keept everyone in the program interested, and Liebo still hopes to give the students they chance at performing that they deserve.

“We are going to perform that as soon as we can. I’m not in a rush to write it, because I kind of like to see how the real [pandemic] ends….I don’t think people will get to perform again until next May. And when I say next May, I don’t mean 2021, I mean 2022.

“For the kids who are going to the high school after this year, they’ll have had a whole year of middle school, not to mention the other half year, without being able to perform. I told all the kids if we’re able to perform in May 2022, I would just make sure that they could be in it. So I would give them a call next year and say, ‘So you want to perform?’ 

“After that…It’s not like I’m burned out. I’m not at all, I know a lot of people who do something for 35-40 years who want to have changes in their life. I still like it quite a bit. If I retired, I’d actually have a bigger paycheck than my work. At [this] point, you know, basically, I’m working for free now, but I don’t think of what I do as working. My job is just fun. I think I’m lucky because I’m in a discipline that’s just enjoyable, and fun and nice to hear what people have to say, to see their performances. So [I’ll retire] probably next year, I mean, that’s why I say, “I hate to say anything.” I don’t want to back myself into a corner, but it’s a substantial amount more if I retire. So I think that’s why the COVID play might be the last thing to do.

“The other thing is, it’s pretty hard to find [a successor]. That’s for sure. Just [because] there’s not a lot of drama teachers out there. I think a lot of people don’t go into education, and take drama, because the job opportunities are pretty scarce. And I think one has to have a credential in performing arts to teach Performing Arts. So there’s not a lot of people out there, that’s for sure. But if I retired and they couldn’t find somebody, I’d probably come back just to be nice.

“It’d be nice if there was a young person, there’s gonna be a lot of performers that haven’t made a lot of money due to COVID. So they might go, “Okay, maybe I should get a more dependable job.” Could be somebody out there looking for consistent work. They probably can’t perform, and there’s a 70% unemployment rate in acting, which is high, more than just about any profession.”

That unemployment rate never scared Liebo from inspiring his students and teaching them real life skills while running real, full length productions. 

“When you’re doing a performance especially, like how we did it at the Clark center, and there were so many people that came and watched you guys, think of how many jobs people got involved in. It’s like you’re a business, you know, you have to market, you have to keep track of accounting, you have to deal with technical aspects, the costume aspect, people showing up, microphones, you know, if you think about it. Just make a list of all the things you have to do… The list is astounding, which of course requires a lot of hard work, which is why you probably don’t get a lot of people who want to actually do it. Because it just so seems overwhelming, which it is, but you know how I am too, I just relied on you guys, which gives you a pretty complete picture of a real life application. A lot of times when you learn stuff, you go, “Why am I learning this” and then when you’re doing a performance, you wouldn’t be asking that question.”

Mike Liebo has applied this teaching style in his classes for decades, and it pays off. Jessie Gaskell became a writer for Conan O’Brien, Harry Shum has starred in many popular Hollywood productions starting in 2003, and Zac Efron went on to…be Zac Efron, and those are just some examples of the many hundreds of students that Liebo has positively influenced over his 40 years of teaching. He truly embodies the old saying “the show must go on.”

All dates and facts according to Mike Liebo via interview.

The Eagle Times would like to thank Mr. Liebo for the lasting impact he has made on the community and the world of showbusiness through decades of dedication and for continuing to keep it going in the face of many challenges.