When I was a teenager, I performed in two musicals. I still remember what I learned about voice, movement and poise.
Four decades later, though, I believe that the most powerful lessons in student productions are found in the plays themselves. When young people dramatize a good story – when they memorize it, sing it, speak it, perform it and especially when they explore it deeply – the story becomes part of them.
This spring at Stadium High School, “Beauty and the Beast” is taking root in the 95 students who make up the cast, crew and orchestra. In cast meetings, in character interpretation and in the interactions of rehearsal, director Liz Jacobsen has helped the students look closely at the themes of the story: Don’t judge others by their outer appearance. Don’t live like a bully or a beast. Show kindness and support instead.
The students are putting the themes into practice as they rehearse and perform the show. Jack Norris, a senior on the technical crew, notes that among teenagers self-confidence can be difficult, yet “the story is uplifting, to think about how it’s not important what you look like.”
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Senior cast member Alexander Arenas says the play’s theme has helped the cast to work together well, and it’s clear that they do. When I visited a recent rehearsal, the creative joy was palpable as the students danced, gave each other high-fives and burst into glorious harmony singing “Happy Birthday” to a cast member.
The theater group is “a great, well-rounded community,” junior Marcello Russo says, and junior Lillian Mangan calls it “a community where people can be themselves, quirks and all.”
Remarkably absent is the prima donna egoism so often associated with theater. Here, teamwork has won out.
Wanting to spread the message of “Beauty and the Beast,” in early March the cast gave a presentation in three middle schools. Remembering the self-consciousness and vulnerability of their own middle school years, cast members spoke to the younger students about what the theater project has taught them.
“It feels so good to put energy and effort into something and be able to perform it,” says Elaina Gish, a junior, recalling what she told Meeker Middle School students.
At Jason Lee, Alexander urged students to get involved in positive projects. “Take a risk,” he told them. “Surround yourself with people who can uplift you.”
Sophomore Michaela Bingham spoke at racially diverse Gray Middle School and encouraged students not to be afraid of something new.
“Being a person of color myself,” she says, “it’s cool to be able to say, ‘You don’t have to worry about how others view you. If you want to do this, then do.’”
Stadium performed “Beauty and the Beast” March 31 through April 2 to full houses, and more performances will be held April 14-16. Spreading the message of kindness even farther, many of the cast members will also appear in “Joenah,” a film being created to stop bullying in Washington.
Creative success like this is what we call talent, and we assume it is beyond most of us. Michaela disagrees. Reflecting on how her own theatrical abilities have grown through coaching, she says, “This is possible for anybody.”
Drama teachers know this, and last year several schools from our region were nominated for the 5th Avenue Awards for high school musical theater: Stadium, Curtis, Gig Harbor and particularly Bellarmine. This is what training and encouragement does.
And isn’t that the message of “Beauty and the Beast”: that transformation is possible? A beast becomes a prince. Teapots, candelabras and feather dusters become human. Anger turns to love. Inexperienced, hesitant students come together to create a “really magical thing,” as Jack Norris calls it – and they will never forget it.
Connie Hampton Connally of Tacoma, a former News Tribune reader columnist, has taught language arts and music. Contact her through her blog at conniehamptonconnally.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.