Stefoni Rossiter: “A clowning achievement”


Miles Bennett

What’s the backstory behind the drama queen on the third floor?

According to current students and alumni alike, Ventura High School Drama Department Head Stefoni Rossiter has made a tremendous impact on many of the young thespians she’s educated and directed throughout her fifteen years at VHS. Although she is widely regarded as an amazing theater arts teacher, Rossiter hasn’t always been the educator her students know today. Life took Rossiter to many places before she could claim Ventura High’s third story drama room as her own, including dancing, bartending, teaching preschool and being a full-time clown. Ever since childhood, Rossiter seemed to have a disposition for theatrics.

“When I was a little kid I would sing and write and I always wanted to do a play,” stated Rossiter, “I think, for some reason, it was always in me to tell stories.”

However, Rossiter’s debut as an actress wouldn’t come until adulthood, as she spent a large portion of her youth as a dancer and intended to major in dance at San Diego State University. Rossiter was set on making a career out of her passion for dance, that is, until her sophomore year of college, when a friend of hers convinced her to try out for the show that San Diego State’s theater program was putting on, a 1940s musical comedy called “Kiss Me Kate.”

“I’d only seen a couple of musicals, but one of my dancer friends said, ‘Let’s audition for that’, and we did and I got in,” recalled Rossiter, “I thought, ‘This is even better than dancing! This is like doing it all!’ So I changed my major and then there was no looking back.”

After a few more years and the acquisition of a Theater Arts Degree from UC Riverside, Rossiter was ready for her new life as an actress.

“I did a fair amount of [theater], I did some independent film work and a little bit of television. I did the game show circuit. I even did a pilot for a game show, won a lot of money. ” stated Rossiter, on her life as an actor.

But a life of show business can’t always put bread on the table, so Rossiter often had to find other ways to support herself.

“I did a lot of odd jobs. I worked at a pizza parlor, I worked at a clothing store, for many years I was a bartender, I worked in a lot of restaurants, I worked temp, I worked for a movie producer’s office assistant, there’s probably more than that,” said Rossiter.
The actress life provided her with a lot of varied occupations, but none are as iconic to Rossiter’s drama students than her years as, “Shuffles the Clown.” After hearing of her previous work for other clown companies, an acting coach convinced Rossiter to pursue clowning and start her own company.

“[The Company] was called, ‘Shuffles the Clown: A Clowning Achievement.’ Get it?’” stated Rossiter, as she let out a brief chuckle, “It got pretty popular and I created a couple of other clowns and hired some other performers, so I was running this company that did mostly kids parties. [We also did] company picnics and things like that. I did balloon animals and painted faces and a little magic and I brought in toys for the kids.”

But after a few years of slapstick and colorful outfits, Rossiter hung up her clown garb for good. Although, an old issue of the Ventura County Star with a feature on Shuffles can still be found framed and hanging in her office, as a memento to the tomfoolery of the past.

After ten long years of acting, Rossiter grew tired of her life on stage.

“I always thought that, if I didn’t want to pursue acting, that I would either want to be a high school theater teacher and have my own department or run a dinner theater. Because I thought both of those would be a way to keep theater in my life, if I just got tired of the grind of auditioning and submitting your pictures, which I did after like 10 years or so.” explained Rossiter

“It’s a really hard life, but I didn’t want to give up theater.” Rossiter continued, “So I decided [that], right after I got married, I’d go to school and get a [teaching] credential, since I already had a degree in theater arts.”
After she finished school, Rossiter found that there weren’t any openings for a drama teacher in Ventura, so she bided her time as a 4th and 5th grade teacher for a few years. Rossiter put in a request at the Ventura district office to be considered if any position did open. And that it did. Ventura High School’s former drama teacher, Dennis Enfield, had decided to retire in the middle of the 2003-2004 school year.

Rossiter retold the interaction she had with the district, “The district contacted me and said, ‘Are you the one that was interested in the theater job?,’ and I said, ‘yes,’ and they called me in for an interview right then.”

“I was really, really excited to be a theater arts teacher here at Ventura, this was the school I wanted to be at,” continued Rossiter, “I mean, I would’ve taken a job [teaching] theater anywhere, but this is it. I love this theater and the space and this is the school that my children were going to go to.”

But, despite Rossiter’s excitement, she didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes from her new pupils.

“[Mr. Enfield] was really well loved and the kids were really surprised when he left. They found out that [he was leaving] at the end of the first semester.” Rossiter explained, “And I still remember the first day I walked into class and sat down in the director’s chair in the front of the class.” 

Rossiter recalled her moments teaching in the drama room, stating: “I was really excited to be here and I just looked at a sea of faces that were so not interested in hearing what I had to say. They loved their other teacher so much and they thought, ‘Who is this lady?,’ So it took a little while for them to realize I had some good ideas and was going to do things differently, but it was going to be okay.”

The first set of thespians to populate her classroom did eventually warm up to her; as Rossiter put it, “‘All’s well that ends well’, as Shakespeare says.”

And it wasn’t long before she directed her first play at VHS, “Is there a Comic in the House?”, a 1995 comedy by Bill St. John that, “nobody knows about”.

“I wanted it to be a play that nobody knew, so that if it didn’t go very well, people wouldn’t have expectations,” said Rossiter, “but it turned out really well. We didn’t have very big audiences. I think we actually had eight people in the audience on one of the matinees.”

Rossiter added that the play was put on in the auditorium, “so [the audiences] looked even smaller.” But despite the audience turnouts, Rossiter still sees the play as a success, stating that, “I really liked the cast [and] it was pretty well received for the people that went there to see it. We’ve just kind of built every year since then.”

Ventura High’s Drama Department grew in popularity after Rossiter’s arrival.

“My first full year I did three plays. I was like a kid in a candy store! I wanted to be here [at VHS] and direct so bad! So, I did ‘Harvey’ in the fall, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in the Winter and then ‘Grease’ in the spring. And by the time we did Grease, there [were] hundreds of people coming out. People wanted to be in the shows, [since] they saw already that the level was pretty professional. And we just kind of took off right away.”

And throughout her years of teaching theater arts, the Drama Department’s popularity continued to grow. Audiences practically filled the auditorium on multiple nights during the department’s production of “Seussical the Musical” two years ago and even more tickets were sold during their production of “Mamma Mia” last year.

But the best part of the job for Rossiter isn’t the grandiose stage productions, directorial authority, audition process or the general theatrics of her position.

To quote Rossiter herself, “I think what I really like the most is seeing people surprise themselves and finding that they can express themselves creatively and build their confidence. Even students that don’t do my plays, sometimes I see such tremendous growth from my classroom students, who are maybe shy or [didn’t want to be in the class at first] and all of the sudden sometimes they come back and take it again. Or they say at the end of the year, ‘I’m really glad I stayed with it I learned so much.’ I really do think that theater is not just for people who want to act in the future, but that theater can help people find out a lot about themselves and it can really have a positive impact in their whole life. So, what a gift for me to be able to do that every single day.”