A group of high schoolers dressed in theater attire form a half-circle around a man in a blue t-shirt and jeans kneeling over a pile of hoodies.
High School English teacher and theater director Kevin O'Leary sobs while kissing a T-shirt or hoodie from each of his student-written plays produced in 21 years at Morse High School in Bath on Tuesday. O'Leary will retire in June. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BATH, Maine — Long-time Morse High School drama club coach and English teacher Kevin O’Leary, knelt on stage in the Montgomery Theater on Tuesday, encircled in a ring of his students, and wept.

O’Leary had gathered his students together for a final rehearsal before Wednesday night’s performance of the last student-written, one-act play of his 21-year high school teaching career.

For two decades, O’Leary has nurtured student playwrights and actors, directing them in the state’s annual one-act play festival. While doing so, he also surrounded them in a supportive and creative community, inspiring them to their full potential.

It’s an ability current and former students describe as “magical.”

A man in a blue t-shirt wearing an N-95 mask spreads his arms on stage, with a group of teenagers around him
High School English teacher and theater director Kevin O’Leary recites a famous Shakespeare speech at Morse High School in Bath on Tuesday. O’Leary will retire in June. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But Morse High School’s O’Leary era is coming to an end. It’s bittersweet, he’ll miss his students, but at 63 he said it’s time to retire and focus on producing his own plays.

“I’m going to write my butt off,” O’Leary said. “I have three new plays in the pipeline.”

As O’Leary knelt on the stage Tuesday, he also performed a solemn ceremony. One-by-one, he laid t-shirts and hoodies from each of his 21 student-written productions in front of him. Then touching his forehead to each garment, he kissed them and murmured quiet words known only to himself.

At the end, he held the entire bundle of cotton and polyester and let the tears come.

Then, he sprang to his feet and began to recite, from memory, the famous St. Crispin Day’s speech from Shakespeare’s play Henry V.

“From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered,” O’Leary roared. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

A man in a blue and white letter jacket speaks to a teenager in a gray sweatshirt in a theater
Student playwright Linville McDonough (right) consults with her drama teacher Kevin O’Leary after a rehearsal on Tuesday. McDonough’s play is called “Stigma” and deals with mental illness, substance abuse disorder and domestic violence. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Then he shouted M-O-R-S-E, stamping his foot on every letter, spelling out the name of their school. O’Leary’s students did not miss a beat. Whooping, they spelled the same thing back to him in perfect time.

“Places for the top of the show,” O’Leary bellowed. “Kill the house lights. Break a leg, take care of each other and drive this thing like a freight train.”

The students then scattered, finding their places.

The entire scene might have seemed overly theatrical coming from someone else. But with O’Leary it’s a telling example of his unflagging energy and dedication to his students and school.

“He certainly carries the torch of Morse spirit,” said Principal Eric Varney. “He bleeds the school colors, blue and white. He keeps the spirit alive in the fine arts as well as the classroom.”

This year, O’Leary chose to produce senior Linville McDonough’s play “Stigma” after working on it with her for a year.

“I hate to see him go,” McDonough said. “Nobody can do what Mr. O’Leary does — there’ll never be this kind of family here again. He holds it all together.”

McDonough’s hour-long play is a comedic, gilded age, murder mystery dealing with the serious issues of domestic vololence, substance abuse disorder and mental illness,

The playwright is open with her own bipolar disorder challenges.

Two teenage boys in theater dress and masks lean against each other while sitting on stage, while in the background, three teenagers pantomime.
Morse High School’s Isaac Ensel (left) and Gaffney McDonough act in a scene from this year’s student-written play “Stigma” on Tuesday in Bath. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Mr. O’Leary encouraged me to share my struggles,” she said, “and he made this a safe place to do that.”

It’s vitally important to empower his students’ own voices, to elevate them to center stage, under the bright lights, O’Leary said. In his decades of producing one act plays for the state drama festival, O’Leary has only chosen Morse High School student-written plays.

“I have to,” O’Leary said, “otherwise, where will the next Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison or James Baldwin come from?”

Most days, O’Leary wears a blue and white leather and wool Morse letterman’s jacket to school. Embroidered on the quilted lining inside is the name of each student playwright he’s mentored and the name of their play. This year, he’s added to the list’s final entries.

In 2011, O’Leary stood by student playwright Max Ater and his piece featuring a gay clergyman and same-sex kiss which generated controvery in the community.

“I wanted — we all wanted — to do our best for him,” Ater said. “Even though I was there, every day, six extra hours after school, there wasn’t a minute when I wasn’t happy.”

Ater is now an award-winning singer and songwriter who credits O’Leary with giving him the confidence to think of the arts as more than just a hobby — but as a way of life.

“His energy is intoxicating,” he said of O’Leary, “He gave me the confidence and the knowhow to be on stage.”

A blue, black and white letter jacket with the names of Morse High School's theater crew embroidered on it is pictured
The names of 21 Morse High School student playwrights and their plays are embroidered on the lining inside director Kevin O’Leary’s jacket on Tuesday in Bath. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

O’Leary wasn’t always a teacher. He graduated from Deering High School in 1977 and graduated from New York University in 1982. O’Leary then spent years writing and acting in professional theater productions.

“I made the rounds,” he said. “I hoofed it all over the country.”

Then, in 1994, he began teaching at the Professional Childrens’ School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There, O’Leary counted Macaulay Culkin, Scarlet Johansen and Julia Stiles among his students.

But he eventually found his way home to Maine and began teaching at Morse in 2001. Finding a working-class community of students to mentor was important to him because the three most influential people in his life were his high school theater director, soccer coach and English teacher.

Kevin O'Leary, a man with dark hair and a salt-and-pepper beard in a blue t-shirt, sits in theater seating facing a stage.
High School English teacher and theater director Kevin O’Leary watches his student actors perform a student-written play at Morse High School in Bath on Tuesday. O’Leary will retire in June. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them,” O’Leary said. “I hope they’d be proud of me.”

O’Leary will retire after graduation in June but he will introduce his final Morse High School play on Wednesday night. It’s the play’s only performance as there is no state one-act play festival this year due to the pandemic.

Ater, O’Leary’s former student, plans to be in attendance, remembering what his teacher did for him a decade ago.

“Oh, I’ll be there,” Ater said. “I’m going to support him, now.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.