Ben Stoner found his passion on stage.
He was a junior in high school and a “mediocre kid in every way,” when he followed a girl into the drama club.
Once in the club, he landed his first role alongside a fellow student named Nathan King in a production of “A Company of Wayward Saints.”
Soon, it was no longer about the girl. He felt at home on stage.
“It was the first time in my high school career I actually felt good about something,” Stoner remembered. “I was part of something.”
He knew then he’d pursue theater.
What he didn’t know is that he’d eventually find his calling as a theater director at Crystal Lake South High School, that he’d find the passion in his students so inspiring he’d have trouble talking about it without getting emotional.
“They just give and give of themselves,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Stoner also didn’t know that fellow castmate King would become the executive director of the Illinois High School Theater Festival and bestow upon him the highest honor a high school theater director can achieve.
Stoner was named the director of the 2012 All-State Production at the Illinois High School Theater Festival, which takes place in January at Illinois State University.
The festival encompasses the all-stars of the high school theater world. Professionals and students from throughout the state come together for workshops and various shows.
The All-State production encompasses the elite of that group. Stoner was named director two-and-half-years ago and has been preparing for the production ever since.
“I knew it would make my life completely insane,” said Stoner, also a West Dundee father of two, ages 2 and 7.
But it was something he couldn’t pass up. Directors can only be selected once for the honor.
“It’s literally a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “It’s one of those things for the rest of my life I will remember.”
It took him a year, hours upon hours of pouring over plays, before he choose “Almost, Maine” as the production. Because the All-State production had been a musical for many years in a row, a non-musical was preferred this year.
“Almost, Maine” takes place on a cold Friday night in the middle of winter in a remote mythical town of the same name.
With a cast of 18 actors chosen after auditions last June, the play has nine scenes in which only two actors appear on stage at a time, with the characters “falling in and out of love in unexpected and often hilarious ways,” a descriptions reads.
“You want to select something that’s going to showcase as many of the state’s talents as possible,” Stoner said.
Choosing a production that also would fill the grandness of the theater at Illinois State University was challenging. In “Almost, Maine,” a display of Northern Lights serves as a transition between scenes.
“I imagined this vast star-filled sky that would almost become a character looming over them,” Stoner said.
The show features 21 student technicians, selected through an interview process, as well as a student composer and five Illinois State University theater students working behind the scenes.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Crystal Lake South senior Kristen Knaak said of the interview process. Knaak was selected as a technician.
She said she had learned so much from the experience.
“It’s really exciting,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of great people.”
Though she plans to one day become a veterinarian, she imagines theater always will be a part of her life.
Of those cast, most intend to pursue theater as a profession, Stoner said.
With 130 kids auditioning for roles, only one in 10 were selected.
“To work with these resources and these students is not something I’ll ever have the chance to do again,” Stoner said. “It’s the top kids from their respective programs.”
The cast includes Meredith McDaniel Dillion and Bianca Shaw of nearby Geneva High School. None of the actors are from McHenry County.
Because of the nature of the production, and the fact that it basically encompasses 18 leads, the cast has become closer than Stoner ever imagined. All want the production to be a success.
“It’s a incredible level of talent and work ethic,” he said. “They were instant friends. They love each other and care about one another.”
It’s that sort of kinship that drew Stoner to theater in the first place, and that motivates him today. He earned degrees both in performance and education and spent about four years after college working as a professional actor throughout the Chicago area.
The most he earned in one year during that stretch was probably $12,000, he laughed, but it was an experience he treasures.
He began directing plays at Crystal Lake South about 15 years ago, and asked and earned a full-time job there about 12 years ago.
“The more I did the job, the more I realized there was no comparison [to acting],” he said. “I thought, ‘This is my life. This is what I’m meant to do.’ “