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School's out for Secunda

It is such a treat to talk to Dave Secunda, especially for a long chat and especially in his backyard.

It is such a treat to talk to Dave Secunda, especially for a long chat and especially in his backyard.

He lives near the bottom of Thermal Drive and his garden is so peaceful and lush that it's easy to picture him mediating there or stealing a few moments to practice yoga.

He does the exercise almost daily. He has the time, now that he has retired from teaching.

In June, after 23 years with the Coquitlam school district - five of them at PoCo high school, 12 at Centennial and another five at Riverside secondaries - the drama coach decided to pack it in.

His daughter was a motivating factor. Joylyn Secunda plans to finish her Grade 12 a semester early, allowing her to get into the working world six months ahead of her peers.

Secunda has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about Joylyn and the bond they share. Lately, she has embraced her father's passion for Shakespeare, which he taught often to countless secondary students. And she, too, is a yogi.

Joylyn is also busy taking classes with her mother, choreographer Linda Arkelian, who was usually by Secunda's side to help him as he produced high school shows.

But when Secunda reflects on his body of work, he doesn't dwell on his two decades with the school district.

Instead, he weaves great tales that start when he left his native Florida as a "draft resister."

As a teen, he had told his parents that, when the Vietnam War broke out, he would move to Canada. His mother called him crazy. "She probably thought it was unpatriotic," he said.

True to his word, after he graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Florida, he said goodbye to his sister and left.

That was 1970 and Secunda was 21 when he landed in Ottawa to pursue a graduate degree at Carleton University. The peacenik never regretted his decision; in fact, he worked for a few months helping an organization in Canada that assisted other draft resisters.

While working on his sociology thesis, Secunda packed his bags again, this time spending a year at a kibbutz in Israel.

He remembers the journey there well: While transferring in London, he sat next to a 17-year-old Jewish girl on the airplane who asked him to get some boxes past customs once they arrived; in return, he could stay in her village until he got settled. Secunda complied but, as it turned out, he had smuggled in banned sewing machines. Luckily, he wasn't caught but the girl got an earful when she returned home, he said.

After the year abroad, Secunda was back in Ottawa and working on a number of research projects with Carleton professors including John Porter, one of Canada's most important sociologists who, in 1965, publishedThe Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada.

In another research study, Secunda spent time with juvenile delinquents in outdoor camps, assessing their behaviours while working as a group.

But in his spare time, Secunda made masks. When the masks garnered favourable reviews in his first group exhibit, "I thought, 'I should do more of this,'" he said, and so he held solo displays.

With the help of some theatrical friends, Secunda included the masks in a performance; it, too, did well, as did a show at the 1978 international sculpture symposium.They took the act to Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and included war canoes.

"It was a really powerful production of movement and masks," he remembered. "There was no text. And at the end, we burned the mask."

By then, Secunda had caught the theatre bug and trained at a community college in Ottawa. He toured with two of his teachers, the latter for two years. "People liked the masks because they were highly visible."

He formed a theatre company, then another called Theatre of Giants, which got a booking at Expo '86 in Vancouver. For the Giants shows, he sometimes employed dancers from the Theatre Ballet of Canada in Ottawa during the summer in exchange for using the group's rehearsal space.

Arkelian was one of the dancers.

After the Expo gig, the pair decided to move to B.C. She got a job with the now-defunct Anna Wyman Dance Theatre company while Secunda taught theatre to First Nations actors via Vancouver Community College.

In the meantime, he studied at UBC, working on his master's degree in art and theatre education; he was conferred in 1989, a year after he won a teaching post with the Coquitlam school district.

When he's asked to name his favourite high school production, Secunda doesn't take long to answer.

"I was in my third year [at PoCo high] and we did Hair," he said. "It was about the Vietnam War and I didn't like the way American Indians were being portrayed in the script so we wrote a 15-minute scene about American imperialism to replace the original four-minute version. We had the school musicians write music to it, too."

Today, he continues to be in contact with two of that show's actors: Michelle Monteith, who is now a T.V. and stage actress, and Richard Bell, who wrote and directed 18, which was narrated by Ian McLellan.

Friend and fellow yogi Diana Clark, the artistic director of Coastal Sound Music Academy, said Secunda "was doing things back then that no one else was doing in school theatre: incorporating modern dance, puppetry and those big woven masks," she said. "Every show was completely mind-blowing."

As for his retirement, Secunda wants to do more theatre, perhaps with some current and past SD43 teachers. The retired ones "tell me that summer is like any other summer but when Labour Day comes, it hits you that you're not going back to school. I don't know how I'll feel," he said. "I may miss it. But I've got a lot going on."