The show must go on: VB drama teacher refuses to let stage 4 cancer keep her from helping students

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A production of “Shrek” at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach seems to be a fitting curtain call to what many would say was the hardest year for students ever.

It’s all under the watchful eye of theater director Nancy Curtis, who’s seen her share of shows.

“I think there might be something wrong with me in that I was only out of high school for four years and then I went back and I’ve never gotten out,” Curtis chuckled.

She’s been at First Colonial for nearly four decades.

“She is probably the most recognizable face that is still here,” said First Colonial senior Ben Lattimer. “It’s cliché, but she is the glue that holds us together.”

“She’s always here,” added senior Elizabeth Sampsell. “She’s always not just working for the shows, but for us.”

As she’s watching her comedy come to life, she’s living a tragedy.

“They always say there’s too much drama in the drama department, but that’s not the only place,” Curtis added.

“Have you been talking at all about the loss in her family earlier in the year?” asked Zack Kattwinkel. Kattwinkel is one of Curtis’ former students and is now an English teacher at the school.

“I don’t think I’ve accepted yet that he’s a [gone],” Curtis said. “Yeah, sorry.”

In January, Curtis’ only son Sky unexpectedly died of an underlying heart condition. Before she could get to his house he was gone. He was only 32.

“He was a wonderful person and a great friend, and he had good friends,” Curtis added.

It’s nights like this that provide Curtis a distraction from all her pain.

“When we found out I was talking to her because I know she was going to be out for an extended period of time,” said First Colonial Musical Director Luke Walker.

“I knew I was having trouble breathing,” Curtis added.

Just after Sky’s death, Curtis was sick. She thought it was brought on by stress.

“I was expecting to hear that I had pneumonia,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to hear that I had lung cancer. When they admitted me, I was pretty sick, and I didn’t know I was that sick.”

She went from stage life to stage 4.

“Honestly, I’m not afraid, but I need to take care of my husband,” she added. “He does a great job of taking care of me.”

“It was unsettling,” said First Colonial junior Madelyn Resnick. “We thought we were all very vulnerable. We really didn’t know what was happening.”

Curtis refused to let the illness slow her down.

“It’s interesting because she will always say things like ‘the old woman is getting impatient. We need to get this stuff started’ but a diagnosis like that really does remind you she is human,” Kattwinkel added.

“You see someone like that, and you have this perspective of them that they are like invincible, like hardly anything could touch her,” Lattimer said. “She is on such a high pedestal and all of that sudden that happens. It’s like when you heard Muhammad Ali got Parkinson’s disease.”

Curtis prefers to hang backstage, always shying away from the spotlight.

“It’s not about me it’s about them,” Curtis said.

“In her viewpoint if she is getting the attention, it’s not about the students anymore,” Walker added.

“She has always said this department isn’t about here it’s about us,” Resnick said.

But this is far from her final act.

“I can’t imagine it getting any worse, but there are people out there who have suffered worse,” Curtis said.

Because she knows the number one rule in theater: the show must go on.

“I know everyone thinks I have an expiration date stamped now and that might be true, but I need for the kids to feel like the world is solid again,” Curtis added.

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