Laurie Godfrey was 7 when she was first cast in a professional theater production in Miami, Florida.

She had planned to always be an actress.

“I never wanted anything more than that, and when they would try to get me to direct because they thought I had a good eye for it, I would say, ‘Absolutely not. I only want my little slice of pie, nothing else,’” she said.

That changed when she was in her mid-20s and one of her director friends fell ill. He needed someone to direct the last play in his one-act series for a premiere showing. She agreed. “But I really went into it kicking and screaming.”

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That feeling didn’t last long. “I sat back and said, ‘Wow, I get to control every aspect of this. That is so much fun, and I get to figure out what works and what doesn’t work when it’s in my head.

“From that point on, I added directing in.”

For 10 years, Godfrey has been the theater director and teacher at Brown County High School, inspiring students from all walks of life to shine.

On March 4, she received the Lifetime Achievement award from the Brown County Playhouse for that work — which includes bringing home state thespian conference championships in 2012 and 2013 and placing in the top five shows six times at the state level.

“I am still in shock. It is absolutely tremendous they would give me that kind of honor,” Godfrey said.

“Not being from here — this is my 10th year here — I would never consider myself eligible for it.”

But if you ask some of her current and former students, Godfrey deserves this honor and more.

Senior Jaylen York has had Godfrey as a director and teacher since his freshman year, when he moved to Brown County.

“This department brought me from having no friends, being a silent show-up kid to being a leader in the department — people knowing me, having tons of friends and not being scared to be myself,” he said.

“Going from that person to being able to stand on stage and act in front of people is something I never thought I could do, but with her help she showed me that I could. It’s, honestly, why it’s been so easy through high school.”

Imagination department

Godfrey earned a bachelor’s degree at Florida Southern College in speech, drama and history. She spent years acting in theater, television and films. She became a mother to two sons.

She continued to act, teach at the university level and earn master’s and doctoral degrees in communication from Regent University in Virginia. She was named an outstanding graduate in the Institute of Performing Arts in 1992.

She became director of three different theater companies, then a theater teacher in Virginia Beach when the companies went on hiatus.

From Virginia Beach she came to Brown County High School — after some research.

“I looked at Nashville and saw that it was an artist colony and thought, ‘Heck, that’s a good one,’” she said.

When she came to interview, “the very first thing I did when I walked through the door and Mr. (Matt) Stark was taking me all around the place was to look up and see those (theater) banners (in the common area). I thought, ‘OK, this is mine.’ I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew,” she said.

Godfrey teaches acting, tech theater and a dual-credit speech class. She also produces and directs shows for the after-school theater program.

The theater department had seen a rotation of five different teachers before Godfrey took over. “I went in to absolute chaos, but I knew this was my place,” she said.

She and her students have made the auditorium home with imagination and recycling skills. They have built set pieces that are used over and over in productions as well as areas to store props in.

“This is nothing but a department of imagination anyway,” Godfrey said.

“If you pull out certain items, you can see their names underneath because they built this.”

Senior theater students also live on through a wall of signatures in the auditorium’s workshop. “If they had only one year or they have been in the program forever, they sign that wall before they go out,” Godfrey said.

“In a school that changes — basically the inside — all the time, that’s one place they know they can come back to and it’s very cool.”

The theater program also brings the community together, Godfrey said. Home-schooled students participate in productions regularly, including a few who have landed lead roles.

“When I audition a show, it’s the person I see best fit for the role that gets it. There is no, ‘It’s their turn.’ I’m sorry, I come from a professional theater; there is no ‘turn.’ It’s who shows me what I need to see for this show, and students know that,” Godfrey said.

“We have created a bond — I think, to some extent — with the community, because there are so many parents that watch their kids grow through our program in so many different ways,” she said.

“That is a side of the student that parents very often don’t even know exists until they see their kid on that stage, and that is really something.”

‘It’s a gift for me’

The “light bulb” moment when a student realizes their potential on stage, or when they come back improved after a summer away are what Godfrey considers gifts.

She spoke about one student who took four years of acting classes but did not show much progress until she did a scene with a fellow student in class.

“When the class bell rang, she stayed on stage and she wouldn’t move,” Godfrey said.

“They all left and I turned around and I looked at her and I said, ‘The bell rang,’ and tears were streaming down her face. She said, ‘I finally feel what it’s like to do it right, and I don’t want to lose the feeling. I want to stay right here.’”

“I am so thrilled to be able to be the one to see that happen and to nudge them in the right directions that they’re going.”

Godfrey enjoys teaching high school theater because students have a clean slate.

“In college you have to break them down like a Marine sergeant who is killing old habits that were not taught properly. Here, they don’t have old habits, almost ever, to break. You can get them clean and teach them what it is that they really should be thinking,” she said.

That work is paying off.

Two former students are studying acting at the New York Conservatory in New York City.

Another former student graduated from the conservatory, and a fourth also attended.

“I show them what they can accomplish and then watch the outcome,” she said.

Next school year, Godfrey will lose 42 seniors to graduation, not including tech students.

“Each time you graduate a group, the rest have to step up. They always do,” she said. “There’s always a group that fills those gaps, but you don’t necessarily always know who they are because they don’t even necessarily know who they are.”

Seeing students step up to challenges is what keeps Godfrey teaching.

“I think, to be very honest, there are a lot of students that want to feel that somebody will be honest with them if they’re not (pulling their weight) and challenge them to step up,” she said.

“I am not bored. I don’t know too many people that can say that in a career, that they still enjoy every aspect of what they are allowed to do, and that’s a privilege.”


IN THEIR WORDS

Students, grads and parents share their praise for “Doc” Laurie Godfrey:

“Doc has always been there for me when I wasn’t sure I could be there for myself. She’s pushed when I thought I couldn’t be pushed anymore, and in that, I’ve found pieces of myself that I didn’t know existed.” — Lilee DeLoach, Brown County High School sophomore

“Doc gave me the tools to find what kind of me I wanted to be, and she was always there when I needed advice the most. She helped me in more ways than I can express and I feel honored to have had her as a teacher and friend.” — James Sizemore, Brown County High School graduate

“Doc’s class is the reason I pursued an acting career. She pushed us to push ourselves. She created a space where high-schoolers could lean on each other for support when their home life tore them down. To me, theater was more than an extra-curricular or a club. It was a safe space where I was surrounded by family who would do anything for me. The only place I truly felt safe and free to be myself was that stage. Doc created a lot of that for us.” — Ariana Lamerson, Brown County High School graduate

“I’ll never forget her telling me just how proud of me she was when I stage-managed for ‘Stalag 17.’ That’s the first time I’ve ever felt like I could be a leader rather than a follower. She made me feel like I was important and had a purpose in life when I didn’t believe in myself. You could open up to her and she would never make a judgment. She’s a great advice-giver and listener, even a shoulder to cry on when needed.” — Lara Wright, Brown County High School senior

“Without her continued encouragement and support, I truly don’t believe I would be who I am today. She’s always there with a word of advice (though sometimes hard to hear) to help you and to truthfully guide you through life. Doc is one of the best teachers that Brown County High School has had, does have and will ever have in their entire established time as a school.” — Rusty Riley, Brown County High School graduate

“Doc was one of my favorite teachers and people that I encountered in my years in Brown County Schools. I was heavily involved in the theater department and spent countless hours with her in and out of class. She’s made a big impact on my life and has taught me much more than what her syllabi had to offer and my life is unquestionably better after having met her.” — Eliot Westcott, Brown County High School graduate

“I’m proud and honored to consider Doc my friend. Doc has touched the lives of all three of my children. I will be forever grateful that they were able to experience ‘her’ world. All of our lives have been made brighter knowing and being a part of Doc’s department. Congratulations, Doc. We love you.” — Rich Westcott, father of Eliot Westcott

“Dr. Godfrey took me under her wing throughout high school and gave me the direction I needed to succeed. She never let me settle for anything less than my best work and established a personal standard in myself that I still carry today. Not only did she make an impact on my high school career, she made an impact on my life. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award than her.” — Zach Margison, Brown County High School graduate

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.