Annie is perhaps one of the most overdone shows in the history of theater. Every single person who knows it is sick of it by now, forty years after it opened on Broadway in 1977 (Morrison). Despite that, my elementary school still chose it to be our first musical ever put on there. During the school year of 2006-2007, a group of musically-inclined parents decided that the school needed a musical. The Baldwinsville School District was known for its great music programs, yet none of the elementary schools had ever had one dedicated to introducing the kids to theater. So, as a third grader with a pre-existing love for musicals because of my exposure to them growing up, I auditioned for a part in the show, and many long months later, we performed the finished product in front of not only the entire school, but multiple nights of parents and audiences. I have absolutely no idea how we did it, but somehow the shows turned out alright.
For years after this the program kept rolling, and volunteer parents continued to step forward to put together these musicals for the kids of Reynolds Elementary. Both of my parents ended up directing multiple shows there, and my father just recently “retired” from the position. The program itself changed in many ways over the years, hopping from director to director, from having live music to having prerecorded tracks, and from well-known musicals to ones written specifically for children. Those are shows written with many speaking and singing roles, catchy songs, and lines that aren’t too hard to memorize. It allows for many kids to gain the experience of having solo lines, whether spoken or sung in the middle of a musical number. They spread the stage time out pretty evenly, giving everyone their time to shine. As the program has evolved over the years, my role in them has changed as well. I started out in the first year of the shows as an actor, participated over the next two years until I graduated the school, and then held numerous jobs each year. The year that my mom directed Seussical Jr, I was in eighth grade and I played the flute in the very small pit orchestra. A few years later, when my dad stepped up to direct a show, he recruited me as the official music director, and I helped all around wherever I was needed. Since then, I’ve been working with the sound and microphones, as well as doing anything else that is needed of me. This year, my dad finally stepped down as the director of the musicals after doing it for three years in a row. I thought that I would never get roped into helping with the musical again, since my family was officially out of that elementary school for good. However, my dad still asked me to help out with the show with him while I was home on my spring break. But this year was different, because it was my first year working on a musical that wasn’t being run by one of my parents. I would have to answer to a different boss, and be thrown into a process that had been going on for months before hand.
It was definitely an experience unlike the years before I had volunteered with this program, like I had anticipated, but I hadn’t anticipated getting to view the show from the perspective of an outsider—someone who had no knowledge of the show beforehand and didn’t have any personal relations with anyone in the cast. I was interested to see how all of these factors would affect my job performance, as well as how I viewed the show and the experience in general.
Over the span of the five days I spent in my old elementary school, I felt such a wide range of emotions. There were times when I felt completely calm; others I was stressed out and rushing to change microphones in time; some times when I was annoyed with kids who kept asking me questions I didn’t know the answers to, but once the curtain closed after the final show, I felt strangely proud. Even in the short amount of time I was there in that environment, I saw a slight growth in the kids and grew to enjoy the show itself and the process of it. It reminded me of my days in that theater program, as well as how it shaped the rest of my school and life experiences.
It is believed by many educators, especially music teachers, that the arts are a very important part of a child’s education. Participating in the arts can be a great way to provide kids with “venues for exploring their creativity,” but not all elementary schools are as lucky as this one to have a theater program (Rajan). The theater has so many great aspects to it when it comes to learning—there is reading comprehension, memorization of lines, music and lyrics, choreography, and the need for attentive listening. So it’s really no surprise that many educators of early education “recognize the importance of artistic experiences and their influence on young children’s creativity and learning” (Rajan). Participating in big productions can also give the kids a sense of excitement, and get them prepared to perform for audiences without being nervous (Dullea). They can rely on their peers for support, and look up to those older than them for inspiration (Dullea). Overall, all of the experiences that the theater provides for kids is different than anything else they may learn in their education and their lives, so it’s not something to take lightly or overlook.
While I was working with the Reynolds production, I saw an interesting change in the kids throughout the week, reflecting everything I had researched about children in the theater. They started off being rambunctious, unfocused, and running around everywhere. By the time the actual shows arrived, some of them still acted that way, but most of them switched gears and began to focus completely on the task at hand. A few kids definitely stuck out as leaders, trying to keep everyone organized and taking the whole thing seriously. They were able to make all their entrances on time, get all their lines right, and knew exactly when they needed to visit my small table for a microphone change. Understandably, they are all still children and had their moments of not being as quiet as they should have been backstage or accidentally being in the dressing rooms when curtain call was starting, but overall it seemed as if the kids were able to successfully focus those few hours a night. A new alumni of the Reynolds Elementary Youth Players told me that she loved the rush of the show nights and “how everything had to be fast…but still everything was fine and everyone got where they needed to be.” She also thinks that being in the shows in elementary school helped her to learn discipline, and when it was appropriate to have fun and when it was time to focus.
My dad, who has directed the show at Reynolds for three years in a row and then ran the soundboard this year, agreed with the theory that theater noticeably helps the kids participating in it. He believes that partaking in shows aids the kids with reading comprehension, public speaking, and their general musical abilities. Writer Rekha Rajan would most likely agree with certain aspects of this statement, because in her article "Beyond Broadway: Connecting Musical Theater and Academic Learning," she talks briefly about how students can analyze the lyrics or dialogue in a musical, and how it gives them opportunities to read with “fluency, expression, and interpretation.” Mr. Madden also pointed out that participating in theater also involves difficult movements when it comes to the choreography, so the kids are getting another physical aspect out of it. One of the most important things he listed was that “it builds relationships with their peers and adult supporters.” This is clearly evident across the board throughout my experiences with working in the theater. The kids learn how to interact with adults in authority that aren’t their own parents or teachers, as well as interact with each other in a professional and nonprofessional sense.
This was prominently demonstrated to me during two major events during my time working on this year's show. They happened respectively on my first and last day helping out, which kind of framed the whole experience perfectly. On that first day, we were waiting for the rehearsal to start, so the kids had just been released from school and were getting out all of their bundled-up energy by running around the “cafetorium”—a term coined by the founders of the Reynolds Elementary Youth Players to address the stage located in the cafeteria. At this point it was just a room filled with chaos—the director trying to set the stage for rehearsal, some other moms pulling out the costume racks to work on some last minute wardrobe, and yelling kids everywhere. My dad and I just stood off to the side, setting up all we needed in order to be ready to do our part with the sound, trying to avoid any contact with the kids with a million questions. Even when it was time to begin the rehearsal, it took the director, a woman who works as a music teacher in another district, multiple tries to get all the kids sitting quietly in one spot. For some reason my dad decided to chime in and help her grab their full attention, and his booming voice quieted them all down in an instant. Most of the kids there were familiar with him from his previous years of directing the shows, so they knew him well enough to know that when they heard his voice, it was time to focus. That reaction was interesting to watch, and is proof that all of the kids who had past experience working under the authority of my father had learned to read his voice and his actions to know when to stop messing around. Like the alumni told me earlier, the kids had to learn to be careful and aware of their actions, and know the right times to have fun and when it was time to be professional.
The second event that really stuck out to me during this experience took place during the second act of the last show. The fifth grader who was playing the important role of the Pigaloo Chief had to miss the majority of the show because of a sports commitment. Another fifth grader took her place for the night, but the student still rushed right to the show as soon as she was out of her game. With only one scene left for the Pigaloos, the girl was changing into her costume, wondering if it was even worth it to go onstage. Other members of this Pigaloo Tribe were surrounding her, helping her change out of her athletic shorts and into her hula skirt. One small girl spoke up during this fast-paced moment, saying, “We’re not going out without you. We’re gonna do this together. We’re a family.” Hearing this from afar really made me smile. Even as young children between the ages of 8 and 11, the actors already had developed a sense of family within the cast. They had experienced what it feels like to be a part of a bigger picture.
Only a few hours after this happened the show was officially over and all the kids ran into the gym where the cast party was all set up. Everyone was there, from the actors to their parents to everyone involved behind the scenes. This was a time when everyone could finally relax and celebrate the accomplishment of the show week. The kids got to have fun taking pictures in a photo booth, ate some food, and even got an official certificate of participation with their name on it. Although those few hours celebrated the physical aspect of the show being completed, I believe it also was a celebration of the children themselves. It was a way to reward them even further for partaking in such a unique and at times difficult activity, and coming out stronger on the other end. For some of them, it was their first experience in a musical, and for others it was their last show before they graduate from elementary school. No matter what side of the spectrum they’re on, the kids all gained things from the act of putting on a musical, although what that may be varies from student to student. I know I carried away a higher appreciation for children’s theater once I finished my piece of cake at the party. Viewing such a small development in the kids during my short time there made me look back on how growing up in the theater has shaped me. According to the previous director, “over 400 kids have participated in this program over the 11 [year] span, most more than once… many of the kids in our productions have continued their involvement through high school.” I am proud to say that I am one of those 400 students, as were all of my sisters.
Participating in musical programs starting at a young age really is beneficial to the children and introduces them to the craft. Elementary schools are a great place to put on productions for the kids to join, and it’s a bonus when so many of the staff and other students are supportive of it. The kids that participate get to start experiencing the art of theater, and hopefully will fall in love with some aspect of the craft and continue to return to it throughout the rest of their life. So even as the fifth graders on the stage took their final bow as a member of the Reynolds Elementary Youth Players, hopefully they’ll remember all they learned and grew to love, and will continue to show up for auditions far into the future.
Dullea, Rhoda. "Engagement, Participation, and Situated Learning in a Children’s Opera Chorus
Program." Journal of Research in Music Education 65.1 (2017): 72-94. Academic Search Complete. Web. Apr. 2017.
Morrison, William. Broadway Theatres: History and Architecture. Dover Books on Architecture. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1999. pp. 154–55.
Rajan, Rekha. "Beyond Broadway: Connecting Musical Theater and Academic Learning." Childhood Education 92.2 (2016): 118-25. Academic Search Complete. Web. Apr. 2017.