The foundation of every high school performing arts program lies in its educational benefits. Such programs foster a greater appreciation of art, music and literature while developing self-confidence, public speaking and presentation skills. In addition, these programs provide hands-on opportunities to learn about stagecraft and the engineering issues that underlie set construction, as well as sound design, videography and lighting. Educational benefits such as these are implicit in the actual productions themselves.
For cast and crew, academic value is added when the preparation and rehearsal of these shows has an explicit educational component. For instance, for the 2012 production of A Few Good Men at St. Joseph Regional High School (Montvale, New Jersey), we invited a member of the U.S. Marine Corps to come and drill our student-actors; in preparation for our 2015 production of Miss Saigon, a history professor from Fordham University spoke to the cast and crew prior to the show about the culture of Vietnam and the impact of the war on its people.
In 2015, we took the students who would be involved in our spring production of You Can’t Take It With You to one of the final performances of that show’s Broadway revival starring James Earl Jones and Richard Thomas. Afterwards, we enjoyed a talk-back with the Broadway cast, and when we revealed that we were staging the show ourselves that spring, we were invited to take as many of the props from the actual Broadway stage that we could transport to school when the show closed the following week. Needless to say, we found a big truck!
But every show, be it a musical, comedy or drama, can also provide opportunities for learning and academic growth that extend beyond the cast and crew.
The most direct way to engage an entire school community in a learning experience is to develop lesson plans for classroom use. For our 2014 school musical, Cabaret, lesson plans were developed that focused on everything from the rise of the Nazi party in prewar Germany (history) to a lesson on how the source material, Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” was adapted for the original Broadway production and then, in a different way, for the 1972 movie (literature). The packet also included a series of ethics-based lessons on social responsibility and bigotry as they applied to the Holocaust and to modern culture today.
For our 2016 production of Urinetown: the Musical, we created a comprehensive packet of lesson plans focused on the issues of government intervention vs. individual rights, water conservation, population growth and global environmental concerns as well as such literary conventions as dramatic structure and parody.
Engaging the larger school community in an educational experience built around a particular production requires the development of a more broadly themed initiative. With Miss Saigon, we encouraged students to reach out to family members and neighbors who were veterans of the Vietnam War in order to better understand their view of that conflict. Students were also asked to reflect on the dilemma of the show’s main character (sacrificing herself to better the life of her child) and to consider the things in their lives that they considered important enough to be willing to die for. A video showing the responses of both students and vets ran in the lobby prior to each performance.
When we did West Side Story in 2008, as a corollary to the show, we organized a program called “Project H.E.A.R.T. (Harmony, Empathy, Awareness, Respect and Tolerance) Being the Face of God in a Diverse World.” The program called on students to discuss race, culture, religion, immigration and (in)tolerance from a historical perspective, and to consider how to bring the virtues of harmony, respect and empathy to life in their relationships with those around them, especially at school.
For our 2017 production of the same show, we hosted a “Day of Inclusion” that considered many of the same issues. Preparation for this day-long event was built around student surveys about their own experiences with prejudice and exclusion. The committee that developed the program included both faculty members, students and the producer of the show. The program itself included a presentation by psychologist/actor Dr. Mykee Fowler, followed by group discussions led by faculty members about the issues raised in the school survey and Dr. Fowler’s presentation.
Another element of educational impact can be seen in lobby displays. For our 2018 show, Curtains, the lobby committee designed several bulletin board presentations on the history of mystery fiction along with profiles of other Broadway thrillers (not to mention a Sherlock Holmes cut-out on the roof of the theatre and an actual car, a replica Boston police cruiser on the sidewalk). Students were invited to submit their own short stories to a mystery contest with cash prizes.
With Urinetown the Musical, our lobby display included a functioning water wheel, along with a student-created video about issues of water conservation world-wide. What’s more, by mimicking the storyline of the show (having a donation basket for people using the public restrooms), we raised more than $1,000 for Water. org, an organization dealing with the water shortage in Africa.
Expanding a production’s educational impact can also be as simple as inviting other schools to attend a performance. At our school, we host a pair of student previews for middle school students (typically grades 6-8, depending on the show). Visiting teachers receive a binder with educational materials and lesson plans to direct a discussion of the show after students return to class at their schools.
Some shows lend themselves to a host of topics that have obvious educational impact; others require a measure of creativity. Either way, engaging, thoughtfully designed lesson plans have the dual benefit of making each year’s production a true “school-wide” experience, and of providing the entire student body with a theatrical experience that is both entertaining and educational, which is a very powerful combination.
Barry Donnelly has been the president/principal of Saint Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey, for the past 11 years. The school’s performing arts program, under the direction of John T. Asselta, received national recognition in 2008 when its production of West Side Story was selected as one of five High School Showstoppers by the USA Today Weekend magazine. The SJR school musical has been a six-time recipient of the Papermill Playhouse “Educational Impact Award,” selected from among the more than 100 schools in the state of New Jersey that submit materials each year.