David Lyman, Enquirer contributor12:39 p.m. EDT May 13, 2016
It sounded too good to be true.
The Cincinnati-based Educational Theatre Association was searching for three local middle schools willing to accept $12,000 in stipends and professional services for each of the next three years.
With those resources, each school would cobble together a “junior” version of a Broadway musical each year. That means, instead of a full-length, full-scaled production, they’d do a trimmed down, 60-minute version.
There were a couple of catches, though. First, schools that already had theater programs didn’t qualify. The awards also stipulated that the creative staff for the shows – directors, choreographers and designers – would all have to be teachers or staff members. No ringers allowed.
But JumpStart Theatre, as it is called, had plenty of schools willing to give it a try. In the end, three were chosen; Holmes Middle School (Covington), Gamble Middle School (Cincinnati) and Finneytown Middle School (Springfield Township).
The three recently completed their inaugural productions. But Wednesday, we’ll all have a chance to see some excerpts from the productions of JumpStart’s first cohort.
For the educators, it has been a rigorous 14-month learning curve as they moved from concept to completion. It wasn’t all hardship, though. Despite the seemingly tough rules, teachers didn’t have to go it alone. They had a slew of resources to draw on, from workshops with professional mentors to step-by-step guides that led them through every aspect of production, from how to cast a show to staying on budget.
“Most people have no idea of all the things that are involved in putting these shows together,” says Ginny Butsch, community manager for the Educational Theatre Association, the parent organization of the International Thespian Society, which has nearly 100,000 active members in more than 3,900 high schools and middle schools around the world. “For people who do know, the thought of mounting a musical is overwhelming. But we found schools, administrators and educators who were willing to take it on. And I think what they came up with is impressive.”
Not every teacher leapt at the chance.
“I’d say ‘drafted’ is a good description of how I got involved with this,” laughs Sara Covert, a special education teacher at Holmes. Bradie Bowen, who was then the school’s assistant principal, was charged with finding ways to broaden the students’ exposure to everything from the arts to world studies. She came across the JumpStart Theatre program and applied. Before the program could get started, though, she moved next door and became assistant principal at Holmes High School.
Before she left, though, she got Covert involved. As the coach of the middle school’s cheerleading team, Covert was a natural one to turn to for the show’s choreography.
Except that she’s not really a choreographer.
“I did a little bit of theater when I was growing up in Portsmouth (Ohio),” says Covert. “But I told her there’s no way I have enough experience to be called a choreographer.”
It didn‘t make any difference. She was in.
But once again, Covert wasn’t alone. One of the many benefits of JumpStart is mentoring by Dee Anne Bryll, a Cincinnati-based choreographer and director. On top of that, part of the package of supplies that they received when they licensed “Annie Junior™” from Music Theatre International were videos that offered detailed instructions of choreography – suitable for middle schoolers – that could be used for the show.
MTI’s website promises that the video “shows you everything you need to know to handle the dance portions of your Broadway Junior™ musical.“ And MTI should know. Over the course of the past 65 years, MTI has grown into one of the world’s largest theatrical licensing agencies. They claim that in North America alone, more than 25,000 productions of shows they license take place every year.
But there is always room for more productions. And with schools all around the nation trimming or even eliminating their arts education, a program like this is a good way to introduce young people to the performing arts at a formative ages in their lives.
The idea is that, after three years of funding and professional support, the schools will have such positive experiences that they will continue the program. The program gives schools the opportunity to develop their own expertise. And with some luck, they will be able to become economically self-sufficient.
It‘s not a new idea. JumpStart was modeled after a New York City program developed by MTI and a group called iTheatrics and supported by theater world heavyweights like The Shubert Organization and The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
So even as the first group of schools are planning their second productions, EdTA has already announced the program’s next three schools; the middle school programs at Aiken New Tech High School and Gilbert A. Dater High School, both in Cincinnati, and Felicity-Franklin Middle School in Felicity.
Meanwhile, Deb Hartlaub, an intervention specialist at Finneytown Middle School, is eager to get started with her school’s second JumpStart production.
“If I could have auditions for next year’s show today, I would do it,” says Hartlaub, who became the choreographer for Finneytown’s production of “Honk! Junior™,” an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” ”I already had a love of the theater. I used to help a good friend of mine with the high school theater program, so I jumped at the chance to get involved.”
Finneytown isn’t completely devoid of theater. Middle school students have been known to participate in productions at the high school next door. But until now, the middle school has had no productions of its own.
“But our school district is very, very supportive when it comes to the arts,” says Hartlaub, noting that Finneytown school has very strong art and music programs. “So I don’t think they had too much trouble getting the school to agree to be part of this.”
The biggest unknown, though, was if the students would be intrigued enough to audition.
“When we held auditions, I didn’t have a specific goal about how many people I wanted to show up,” says Hartlaub. “I just hoped that enough people would show up to cast the play.”
“Honk! Junior™” has 24 characters. Having a large enough turnout wasn’t a sure thing. But when the day came, 30 kids showed up. Every one of them was cast in the show.
It was much the same thing at Cincinnati’s Gamble Montessori High School, where middle school students performed “Once On This Island, Junior™“ in late April.
And it was much the same economic situation, as well. EdTA’s funding was what sealed the deal.
“We’re always looking for ways to give arts opportunities to our students,” says principal Jack Jose. “But money is limited.”
Gamble is a low-income school with nearly two-thirds of its students regarded as economically disadvantaged.
“Many of our parents have mobility issues, too,” says Jose. “So we found ourselves having to overcome some additional barriers.”
But the teachers were determined to keep the show sharp and on schedule. And in the end, the show was everything Jose and his teachers had hoped it would be.
“You have kids who have a lot of things stacked against them,” says Jose. “Then you see them up on the stage. I’ll tell you, there were moments where they were transformed. You see the potential of the child to cut through all of the social clutter we place on them.”
And the rest of the audience?
“Those of us who sat in the audience were big winners, too,” says Jose. “Not only did parents show up to watch their own kids, but so did parents of other kids. We’ve found some success in our school. And a show like this becomes part of that success. These are the moments we live for.”
If you go
What: “JumpStart Theatre Showcase”
When: 6 p.m., May 18
Where: Gallagher Student Center Theater, Xavier University, 3800 Victory Parkway, Walnut Hills.
Tickets: Free, but you must have tickets.
Information: Call Ginny Butsch at 513.535.3948 or email email@example.com.