Updated: Mar 2, 2020
To perform in a musical, or to be part of such a production, is an inspiring experience. The developmental growth achieved from auditioning, studying, rehearsing and finally performing on stage in front of your peers, school and family cannot be matched in any other situation.
Sadly, the opportunity to be included is not an option for the majority of children and certainly not those in elementary school. Some miss out because they are not able to stay after school due to parents who work or their own family responsibilities. Many miss out because it would never occur to them to try out and there is no one convincing them to do so. As a new principal at Arts Academy Elementary Charter School, I was curious what we could do to tap into the potential of each child or otherwise provide opportunities they would not experience in their home district.
“Lion King, Kids!”
While there were monthly showcases in place, I challenged our arts team to put on a musical, but to do it in a way that included all of our 5th grade students and to allow them to participate in the role they chose, regardless of experience, talent or skill. This was a little hard for them to wrap their heads around at first, but they quickly took on the challenge and settled on Lion King, Kids! Its large cast, varied arts opportunities and familiarity for the students made it ideal for a first run of this endeavor. We decided to include all 4th grade students in addition to the 5th grade, so everyone could get their choice, while ensuring there were enough students to fill the crucial acting and singing roles. We had no idea what to expect when we surveyed the students. They could choose an On-Stage Role (acting, singing, main or minor character, dancing) or an Off-Stage Role (scenery, props, costumes, makeup, stage technicians, advertising, assistant directors). It was a relief to find that the selections were rather evenly distributed.
A Role for Everyone
Students auditioned for all on-stage roles because we believe this is an important part of the learning process and overall experience. Students were given parts to rehearse prior to their audition, which was held during school hours. The arts team then went to work, seeking ways to fit all students into their preferred roles. They decided to get creative, assigning multiple students to same character, and designing costumes that could easily be switched out off-stage. They re-imagined Rafiki as a team of narrators instead of one character, and we planned to have two performances. Within a very short period, the pressure was on! We had students who needed reading or language support to learn their lines or song lyrics; students who got frustrated and shut down or acted out; students with attendance issues and students in conflict with others. And they were all included. Dropping out wasn't an option.
A Sight Unseen
Being a small school, our arts teachers practiced with students in any available space they could find. Students painted the backdrop in the middle of the hall. They sewed costumes in classrooms and as we got closer to the performance dates, they routinely took over the cafeteria for full-cast rehearsals. We solicited parents for help on last minute set-building and they were instrumental in helping us pull it together. On the day of the performance, all 140 students arrived by bus to the venue for the very first time. We rehearsed all morning, breaking for lunch, taking students in groups outside for fresh air, trying to manage their nervous energy, while the teachers frantically worked out all of the inevitable changes needed to accommodate the space. The tech team struggled to learn the lighting and sound equipment they had only talked about prior to that day and of course, there were technology issues. To say the stress level was high would be an understatement.
An Amazing Performance
When it was time to get in positions, the families were seated and the music began, it was as if we were on Broadway with lifelong performers. I beamed with pride at how well everyone performed and how it all came together, as if we had fully rehearsed in this space a dozen times. I admired all of the imperfections that proved this was indeed an elementary, student-centered production. The success of the performances proved to everyone in that audience and more importantly, to each of those 140 students, what they were capable of achieving. This was something new and wonderful.
And it was just the beginning.