On the Horizon
Words by DeeGee Lester
Photography by Jean-Francoise Riand
Most adults would agree that it’s the crazy, noisy, anxiety-riddled years of middle school that are most in need of focus, balance, growth, and a feeling of ‘belonging’. In these formative years, the opportunity to move outside ourselves, to gain perspective and empathy, is crucial to development into a mature adult.
Oliver Middle School students Kaylee Valdez, Alexander M. Benton, Annie Mitchell, and Sarah Anderson agree that it was the theater program that provided these crucial life skills and serves as a launch pad into high school. Under the skillful and passionate leadership of Caroline Sharp, director of the Oliver Middle theater program, reluctant, often shy students are soon hurling themselves into role after role, gaining poise and confidence.
“There are 78 students in my advanced theater class, and it is a teacher’s dream class,” says Sharp. “These students pour such energy, work, heart, and commitment into this program.” These eighth-grade students were part of the original “Disney Babies” who launched Oliver Middle’s collaboration with Disney Musicals in Schools and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
“They have embraced the truth that the magic of theater is just all the really hard work and commitment that a cast and crew pour into a show to tell a significant story,” Sharp explains. The result is the transformative power of theater that is referenced repeatedly by the students.
“I didn’t think I’d enjoy it,” admits Benton. “But I tried out, and the next day I was George Banks [Mary Poppins]. Once I got into the program, I found something I never knew I had. It’s not a burden; it’s something I love.”
Anderson’s transformational experience started differently with her initial disappointment in casting as Tweedle-Dee in Alice in Wonderland. “I had to wear a fat-suit! But people believed in me; spoke life into me. It’s not easy, all fun and games, but you bring joy to people.”
Over the years, the students performed Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, and The Sound of Music. Through the process of rehearsal and performance, the students tapped into something within themselves ranging from confidence and belief in themselves to the ability to express emotions in a safe place and create a chain reaction of emotion within the audience (the ripple effect).
“Drama has taught me to never give up,” says Valdez. “This year I went to auditions for The Little Mermaid thinking I was going to get a small role like the years before, but I ended up getting Ariel! Drama at Oliver has impacted my life so much. It has not just made me a better actor, but has made me a better person.”
The challenges for these young actors are many and can run the gamut from working with a choreographer, or learning to appeal to different age groups within the audience, to working as a unit.
“I have learned to celebrate others’ accomplishments and encourage my fellow cast-mates and students to strive for success,” says Mitchell. “I have learned that we can only be as good as our weakest member. And I have learned that we can and must push ourselves to a higher level of performance . . . together.”
In tight budget years, the true value of the arts in schools is echoed again and again in the heartfelt remarks of young performers. Another student, Sophie Riand, summed up her feelings to Sharp. “Drama truly changed my life. You saw potential in me and pushed me to grow. Being a “Disney Baby” changed my life. I have grown in confidence. I used to be envious when other people got certain roles, but you showed us there are truly no small roles—every character tells a story, and only you can tell that character’s story. I started to believe this, and I found confidence like I have never known.”
The theater program has successfully prepared each of these outstanding young actors to be launched this fall into high school.