Like Oscar Wilde, I learned in elementary school that it was only in the theater that I lived. I was one of the kids who found a home in the sharp contrast of the blinding stage lights and the inky black of backstage. I’d found my people. The ones who could sing and dance any number in “Grease,” whose entire wardrobe was made of cast shirts, and who knew that each show meant no sleep during tech week and tears the morning after the last curtain call.
I thought I’d said goodbye to the stage after college as I began my career as an elementary school teacher. Little did I know I’d find it again as a teacher in the after-school musical theater program we’ve established for our grade school. Kindergarteners through eighth graders perform a large musical each year at a local high school performing arts center with 1,300 seats, state of the art equipment, and a huge stage. We rehearse 2 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 5 months, with a cast and crew of over one hundred kids. We’re not a performing arts school – we’re a regular district school with the right mix of people and passion for executing a production of such magnitude each year.
Although some may think theater is all about being on stage, but that only happens for a small part of every show. It’s really about the relationships built while living life from rehearsal to rehearsal.
The production brings together every member of our school community. My seventy-something colleagues will come to see the show, help sell tickets, or do art projects with antsy performers waiting for their cues backstage. Our students will come to support their friends on stage. Our school board members and people from the community will come. Our middle schoolers and “littles” in the cast and crew, who would ordinarily rarely interact, find a common bond over their favorite backstage dance moves, rituals, and candy. Families who spend Saturdays building and painting props and sets and sewing costumes form lasting friendships.
Augusto Boal said, “We must all do theater – to find out who we are, and to discover who we could become.” Helping kids find their relationship with the theater will be our lasting legacy. I think of my 5th grader, Austin, who used to struggle academically, who sang “Burn” from Hamilton in her audition and brought everyone in the room to tears, and whose constant reading of her script has made her fluency and confidence soar.
There’s Tristan, who was in my class in kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade and is now a freshman in high school. Tristan tried out for his first show as a seventh grader on a dare. He says he was shocked when we cast him but loved the feeling of being part of something special. That dare is paying off, too, as Tristan will play a lead role in his high school production. He’s coming back to help us tech the show, too.
And Thomas, a founding member of our first drama club, who graduated from ASU with a degree in theater design and production and now teaches theater and movement at Childsplay and produces, directs, performs and designs all around the valley. Thomas will also be returning to help us run the show. Thomas credits our drama club with his love of teaching theater to children.
This full-circle experience is all the more poignant for me because I was spending a summer during college teaching at a theater camp when my boyfriend suggested that since I was having so much fun teaching children, I should consider changing my major to education. Thanks, Don, that was really good advice.
The truth is, being a theater lover makes me the teacher I am today. I bring drama into my lessons as much as possible, whether we are time-traveling detectives solving mysteries in history, acting out the surrender at Yorktown, or dancing the Virginia Reel. I use parts of Hamilton and 1776 to teach the Revolutionary War and Newsies to teach child labor and social justice movements. Just like how I learned about dinosaurs in the second grade.
So, thank you, Mrs. Mueller, for my first role as Pterry Pterodactyl in Our Dinosaur Friends. I discovered who I am that day on stage, someone who helps others discover who they could become.