The room hummed with conversation and energy. Fifty students and teachers gathered in the large black rehearsal room talking and prepping costumes and running through combat scenes. Their show opens in less than a week, but everyone seems relatively calm.
They are the cast of The Lion King, and are eighth grade students at The Arts Based School downtown. The play will run November 8th and 9th, with two performances on the second night.
The show is a collaborative effort. All the teachers for the eighth grade are involved in some capacity. Nick Zayas, the theater teacher, is the director, the choir teacher is the music director, and other teachers are helping sew costumes or manage behind the scenes. Even Mary Siebert, the arts director at the school, is involved in the production. Every student in the eighth grade is in the show, either as ensemble or a main role. It will be performed in three quarters round, meaning the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, with the goal of incorporating the audience into the production.
“We always aim for a really high level of production value, regardless of whether students want to pursue theater or not,” said Zayas.
The show opens with an African drum performance, a form of music students take from the second grade on. Then, the curtains close, and the Circle of Life song sets the tone for the rest of the play. There are dance numbers and vocal performances and dramatic and comedic acting. In short, the performance is a synthesis of what these students have been learning for years.
“It’s a really nice combination of all the skills they’ve learned here,” said Zayas.
There are only 45 students in the eighth grade, and many of them have been together since Kindergarten. This will be their last performance and their last year together before they go their separate ways.
“It’s a heartbreak year, a bittersweet time,” said Tammy Willard, a parent. The parents wanted to commemorate the student’s hard work, and enjoy a fun final trip together with students who have been together since Kindergarten.
Shannon Walton’s son Seth is an eighth grader at the school, and she decided at the beginning of August to take him to New York to see The Lion King on Broadway before it closes in the spring. She quickly decided it should become a class trip, a final bonding experience for the students.
Only 15 students and 8 parents are going on the trip for various financial or planning reasons. Willard believes if the parents had more time to fund raise and plan, everyone could have gone. Since it is not school sanctioned, the students are raising money so everyone can go, regardless of their financial situation. Walton has paid in advance for the hotel, the tickets, and the transportation out of her own pocket. She trusts the students and their families will find a way to pay her back in time.
Sarah, an eighth grader who is going on the New York trip, is a lioness in the play. “I think it’s about leaving eighth grade and going out with a bang,” she said.
Thus far, the students have held three fundraisers to pay Walton back. First, they sold donuts during a Gallery Hop back in September. On October 14th they held a yard sale at the Parkway United Church of Christ because one student’s father is a pastor there. They also set up a booth at the Fall Festival, an event their school hosts every October. There are food trucks, vendors, and games, and the students had a booth and sold Krispy Kreme donuts to raise money.
Some of the students going on the trip have never been to New York City or seen a play on Broadway. One of the trip days has a time blocked off for the students to explore the city in groups with parents. Two of the boys agreed that they would be spending that time in the Nintendo store.
Additionally, the experience has provided many new lessons outside of the classroom for these students.
“If we set a goal we can work for it,” said Finn, a student, who is a hyena in the play.
“Plan ahead,” said Ellis, his twin. “If we’d had a year, the whole grade would be on board.”
“There’s also this idea that it’s not free,” said Lisa Cunningham, another parent. “When you want something, it’s got to be paid for. Getting money requires work.”
It’s clear the students bring great energy to whatever they do, whether it’s The Lion King, or raising money. Their parents and teachers agree that the play and the fundraising experience has been a learning experience for these students.
“You have to teach children to dream big,” said Willard. “And dreaming big involves working and planning big.”