The theater portion of the Theater, Arts and Gymnasium building at Rancho Cotate High School is now “The James Pitt Theater.” The school board approved naming the theater, after a former English and Drama teacher - Jim Pitt, at their June 9 meeting. This process started a year ago. A group led by former colleagues, reached out to other teachers and his former students. They kept their effort hush hush. As one organizer said, “he is so modest he would have insisted that we not pursue naming the theater after him.”
Bestowing a name on facilities for the contributions of individuals is a time-honored tradition. In performing arts, we have the Kennedy, Burbank and Speckles Centers. Many schools are named after national and local figures. For example, locally, the Thomas Page Academy in Cotati and Lawrence Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park. At the high school, naming the theater for Pitt will follow similar honors for Sarlatte (gym), Daggett (football field) and Dougherty (baseball field).
At the January 21, 2020 school board meeting, RCHS Principal Louis Ganzler made a presentation and recommended the board name the theater after Pitt. The board took the proposal under consideration. They wanted to ensure regular board process was followed before deciding. They promised a decision as soon as possible. They kept their promise tonight, approving the motion on a vote of 5-0.
Why James Pitt? He began his career in this district at the Junior High School level in 1972. That was where he first started work with drama students. According to Ganzler, it was there he “developed the program that would prepare students for high school drama.” He created an after-school program, which “inspired students to explore the world of theater.” During the summers he worked with the Rohnert Park Youth Theater to encourage students to direct, act, or learn how to build sets.
In 1983, he moved to the High School. Teaching literature, he also brought his passion for drama with him. There wasn’t a theater on campus, so he worked out of the school cafeteria. For two decades “he directed and produced at least two plays per year.” His plays were often traditional high school plays, such as the “Matchmaker.” Yet he also had the courage and faith to present more controversial works such as “The Normal Heart” and “The Laramie Project.” Ganzler said “These plays dealt with identity issues that many students were quietly struggling with regarding gender and sensitivity.”
Given the time frame, marginalized students and their friends, had few places where they could be open about their gender identification issues. Pitt’s drama program and his classroom became a safe space for them. He went on to create the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at the high school. This club allowed students to “meet weekly to discuss issues, share experiences and enjoy camaraderie.”
Pitt did much more than what can be covered in this story. The focus here has been on his drama program because his name is going up on the theater. We haven’t explored his role in promoting and expanding the AP Literature program at the Ranch from a few students to multiple sections with upward of 70 students. We also haven’t looked at his yeoman’s effort to get bond issues passed to facilitate the building of a Theater, Arts and Gymnasium building for the high school.
Teaching his kids, serving his community over a 35-year distinguished career; Pitt retired in 2007. Unfortunately, Pitt passed away in early January 2020 without knowing about this effort to honor him. Yet his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he inspired all those many years.
Joshua Dylan Mellars, Class of 1994, wrote, “Of the many students inspired during Jim Pitt’s long teaching career, I am one.” Mellars went on to study theater and film at Brown University. He is now a filmmaker and public television producer.
Jill Zschach, Class of 1986, is following in Pitt’s footsteps. She teaches drama at Lawrence E. Jones Middle School and directs two after school plays a year. She said, “I am thankful that Mr. Pitt put in so much time and energy to give us students a place to shine.”
Nora Songster, Class of 1986, first met Pitt in seventh grade. She said, “Without the drive and dedication of our director, Mr. Pitt, I imagine none of it would have been possible.” Who better to name the theater after?