Each year, I throw myself into the school productions with such intensity that most assume I was a theater kid growing up.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I auditioned only once- as a third grader for what I thought was the plum role of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. My front teeth had not grown in yet so the toothless gap was perfect for hissing at the drama teacher during the audition. Alas, she cast me as a munchkin with no speaking lines in the most frumpy orange polyester costume and in only one scene. The Wicked Witch role went to Emily, an 8th grader with a perfect set of pearly whites. Since all I had to do was cower behind a tree when the house landed on her and hold some boy’s hand emerging from behind it singing that Ding Dong! song, I spent a lot of time watching rehearsals obsessing over the fact that Emily should at least have eaten squid ink to blacken her teeth. No matter how well she sang or acted, she wasn’t believable; everyone knew no wicked witch would ever brush her teeth after she ate smoky bats and spiders.
I never auditioned again, but that didn’t mean I stopped loving the theater. In fact, I discovered that I preferred (what can only be described as) the calculated mayhem involved in production and backstage work to being stage center. Now a Principal who moonlights as a producer, costume designer, hair/makeup artist and stage-hand for each school production, I’m as enthralled as any audience member when the lights go down, but working from the wings gives me a front seat to a different magic that takes place within each cast member:
The magic of discovery
Each year, students already bitten by the theater bug audition alongside first-timers. I always feel that we are achieving the goal of schooling in particular for the latter as they edge timidly towards greater self-awareness and confidence. Each opening night, a parent will find me and say “I never even knew [my child] could do that!” Well, chances are, their child didn’t either. And because our theater program is inclusive, the possibility of adding to their repertoire hits deeper. Through the years, it has been especially gratifying to watch students who otherwise feel lost at school for various reasons, own their space underneath the lights as they grow more and more steadfast in the belief that they belong on stage newly revealed as an actor, singer and/or dancer.
The magic of high expectations
One misconception about our school is that prizing a culture of kindness means we have an “anything goes” atmosphere, which just isn’t true. I go so far as to argue that with any group endeavor, it is actually kinder to have high expectations that are clearly articulated and maintained with consistent cultural norms than to democratise the process with each person interpreting the lack of a standard as they wish. Of course individual bests are going to be variable and how those are supported and coached is where the element of kindness plays a great part. But drive and diligence for quality and detail is contagious as the group works hard toward a clear goal sustained by the efforts of those around them. That line from Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto, about a man’s reach famously needing to exceed his grasp, speaks to our hearts when we think about our own dreams, and it should also motivate our inclinations as we work with colleagues whether they’re kids or adults. By setting a higher bar, you leave room for everyone, including those already proficient, to dream big and gain the deep satisfaction of achieving something that seems impossible. People secretly want a reason to dig deep because it makes the experience more meaningful but they will drag their feet kicking and complaining to do so unless they have the perfect storm of a healthy peer culture contingency, the right coaching and a compelling vision. There is no greater gift to confidence and future competence than showing everyone, yourself included, that what once seemed foolish attempting, was actually possible after all.
When we decided to take on Les Miserables with a cast of 40 kids during masked times with only a handful of proficient singers, people were worried. The concern was further magnified when Covid caused school closures and production stalled for over a year and a half. We returned on-site with only a couple months to go with the crazy thought of squeezing the show out before June because we had no idea what might happen next year and it felt like now or never. With rehearsal time halved and respiratory infections plaguing the cast in the last month, each week brought a problem that seemed to cause another reason to forget it. When one of the High School leads developed bronchitis during production week, it seemed the final Sisyphean blow. By then, the magic had begun- first fittings for costumes, a moving stage, smoke machine and set were in place, but more importantly, the cast recognised that everyone was clearly giving it their all- scenes hitting all the right notes visually, musically and emotionally. There was a synergy of focus and drive amongst the cast that I had never seen before to see the show through. So when it seemed the show was again put at risk, I was in awe of a fifth grader who stepped forward to learn all Javert’s lines and songs and in what seemed like a day, transformed herself into a worthy understudy so the show could go on and it did.
Moments like these where we’ve dug deep and beaten the odds while expanding boundaries alongside students discovering yet a new facet of themselves is the work that makes me the proudest. Accomplishment means less when it’s predestined and easy and somehow we have a knack for never choosing either both at our school and in our theater program. Whether experimenting with an interactive Bugsy Malone set in 1920s Shanghai, an outdoor adventure with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at our local Windtower park amphitheater, showcasing our first built set in Annie or setting up a circus with hoop and silk aerial sequences in The Greatest Showman, it’s always seemed ridiculously impossible at one point or another, yet somehow we’ve made it look easy. A parent once asked if we’ve always had the theater program because it seems so much a part of who we are as a school, but actually it started on a lark when we didn’t have much figured out, not even a real campus back in 2015:
(Producer’s message, 2015)
The idea to have our first school production, The Wizard of Oz was hatched over lemonade and sandwiches in early July.
Back then, the actual details of production seemed like such a distant concern that it was easy for us to continue with the fantasy and think, Well why not? Of course we can do this! In the relaxed haze of summer wonderings, indeed anything and everything seemed possible because before we knew it, we had set a high bar- The Wizard of Oz, a school musical production for the first time in school history to debut the following May. Never mind the fact that we didn't even have our own auditorium or drama teacher or that we had students who were more MineCraft than Les Mis. It was, like all ideas, a great idea! And we figured, well, the rest would just come.
It started with a trickle but sure enough, arrive they did.
Under the leadership of our Middle School Literature Teacher, Mr Kamel (the only one who recognized the madness we had undertaken and yet still signed on), for the first time ever, the school was abuzz in early February of 2015 with auditions. Students who barely said three words on a daily basis signed up after strong encouragement. Students who were known for many other activities like reading, drawing, sporting and video-gaming discovered they could hold and in fact, hone a tune. As the collective reality of the undertaking required unspooled into March and April, the frenzy continued and soon, no one was safe: Teachers transformed into lighting technicians, production managers, actors, set and prop designers, Vice Principals and parents became costume designers, seamstresses and grips, Administrative staff transformed into ticketing and logistics.
For only one show, it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge the way that our school community pulled together for the magic of this evening. A huge thank you to every single cast member, who gave up other pursuits to be a part of this one, who forsook their comfort zones to emerge transformed- an actor, a singer, a dancer or stage manager. Thank you to all the teachers and school staff members who put in many extra hours to support the whole production in so many ways. Thank you to all the parents who sewed, shopped, beaded, painted, procured, and provided professional lighting and staging assistance on behalf of this production. And the biggest heartfelt thank you to Mr. Kamel, our Director for agreeing to lead it all. He had his work cut out for him, our somewhat unruly school into this kind of production shape yet we're here and we did it.
So, thank you again for being here and being a part of this whole experience. Welcome and enjoy the ride because "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
No, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. Reading that now post-Grease Jr. (video to come soon!) where we debuted a car, an almost entirely female cast with primary students managing lights and sound as part of our new Tech Know Wise production crew, I wonder if that might be the third spark of magic- a community comfortable treading the strange space between “why not?” and “oh but that’s crazy!” because the gleam that the risk of boundary-pushing brings when not everything is figured out completely is that we are compelled, each of us, to step up and pitch in.