Faith, trust, and pixie dust

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BY HARPER LEE

DIRECTOR DANIELLE MILLER can’t believe the dead silence coming over her headset at 7:10 p.m. Her spring musical, Peter Pan, was meant to begin 10 minutes ago, but she held the house for a lobby full of frantic latecomers clamoring for tickets to the nearly sold-out performance. Are cast members in place? Why is no one answering?

Dashing backstage, the high school theatre teacher discovers that the tiny 5-year-old girl playing Nana, the Darling family’s canine caregiver, is feeling sick — too sick to perform. The clock is ticking. Quickly, Miller enlists a new Nana: a recent alum of her theatre program. A production assistant on the show throughout rehearsals, the former student knows the part … well enough. Accepting the challenge, the new Nana hastily assembles a workable dog costume from fabric scraps in Miller’s costume closet.

At 7:20, the Darlings take their places, and the house lights dim. The show goes on.

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Everyone in Neverland

Hoboken, New Jersey, is a small, multicultural city just a quick train ride from Manhattan. Since arriving at Hoboken High School seven years ago, theatre teacher and Thespian troupe director Danielle Miller has produced a districtwide musical performed on Hoboken High School’s stage with students from the city’s high school, middle school, and four elementary schools.

During her first year, Miller produced the customary fall play and spring musical with her students. Then she got a surprise call from the superintendent: Could she produce one more musical, cast with children of all ages selected from schools through out the entire school district? At the time, the concept was completely new to Miller. She had never heard of a high school theatre program producing a major musical like this. Even now, she says, she doesn’t know of another school in New Jersey that has a district-wide production.

But she agreed, and without a lot of time to prepare, she quickly selected a show she knew well (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and dove in. “We had about 170 kids audition for Peter Pan this year, and we took 100,” says Miller, who also had another 20 students build and paint sets after school. “When we first started this, maybe there were 30 or 40 kids. Every kid that auditioned got to be in the show. It’s gotten so large now that the unfortunate aspect is we just can’t take every student.” Since then, Miller has steadily grown the district-wide musical program, directing productions of Seussical, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, among others.

This year’s production of Peter Pan included cast members as young 5 and as old as 18. Students deliver their best work, while older students act as positive role models and leaders, and a strong base of about 50 parent volunteers support the production. According to Miller, audiences should leave stunned by the high quality of the production. “The coolest thing about these shows is that, no matter how old you are or what grade you’re in, everyone’s equally valued,” says senior Brandon Lyons, who played Mr. Darling.

"I can fly!"

Miller is a firm believer in theatre’s capacity to cultivate leadership and entrepreneurship in young people. So, while she conceives the show’s artistic vision, she enlists students to execute the performance, production, and even some logistical and managerial elements. For example, senior and Peter Pan star Hannah Mack served on the costume committee charged with budgeting, designing, making, and organizing costuming for the youngest members of the cast — about 30 kindergartners and first graders. “We sewed and ripped and hot glued, and eventually it all came together,” she says. “It’s really awesome to see it work and finally finished.”

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Mentorship has become the cornerstone of Mack’s experience with Hoboken’s districtwide show. She was mentored by an older student, who guided her and entrusted her with specific jobs, and she now enjoys coaching the younger cast members. “When I first came to the high school, I had no idea that our second show would be with hundreds of little kids,” she says. “At first, it was very intimidating, because you have to set an example. You’re mentoring. You’re making sure they’re not running around. It was hectic my first time. And then suddenly, when we performed the show and saw all these kids onstage, it was like magic.”

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Nine-year-old Emily Cho-Sayegh, who played Captain Hook’s pirate sidekick Smee, is on her fourth district-wide show. She beams as she describes being in the spotlight. She never gets stage fright anymore, she says. Theatre has taught her how to speak in front of a big group. And working alongside the big kids is exciting. “It’s really cool,” Cho-Sayegh says. “The big kids help me … and I help the little kids. So, it’s like a process: medium kids help younger kids, big kids help medium kids, and big kids help themselves … and medium kids and little kids, too.”

Through theatre, Lyons says he has matured as a person, seeing himself overcome his shyness year after year to perform with confidence in front of a crowd — something he always wanted to do but never thought he could. Before auditioning for his first play, Hoboken’s districtwide production of The Little Mermaid three years ago, Lyons paced in and out of the theatre three times, almost too terrified to audition. But since landing the role of King Triton, he’s been hooked.

“I’ve always been the type of person to not raise my hand, because I was afraid of what other people would say or think,” Lyons says. “I hated group projects, because I hated talking to other people, but then, once I was introduced to theatre, I became a very nice public speaker. It’s given me this confidence. And it’s actually helped me improve my grades, because I wasn’t afraid anymore to raise my hand.”

Captain of the ship

Miller was enchanted by theatre at a young age, after her mother took her to see a production of Annie. A standout athlete in high school, she was named one of New Jersey’s top field hockey players her senior year. Although she excelled at sports, Miller knew deep down she wanted to pursue theatre, and she took a job after high school with a New York City casting director and acting coach.

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Later, she began coaching actors, prepping them for auditions. Surprised by how much she enjoyed the work, Miller found herself drawn to teaching. “I just never really thought I would enjoy it so much,” Miller says of being an educator. “But I feel like it’s really rewarding in a lot of ways. It makes you feel like you have a purpose, like you’re a part of something greater.”

Now, in addition to the district-wide show, Miller teaches four to five different classes, directs a high school-only musical, and coaches her students on countless scenes and monologues. Her Thespian troupe spends many weekends on the road, traveling to events across New Jersey. Running a theatre program, Miller says, is like running a business: The more money that comes in, the more the program can grow. The group tries to do one fundraiser a month.

She is also pursuing her master’s degree in an accelerated, 18-month course in educational leadership. Her deep work ethic and commitment to her students has earned Miller Hoboken High School’s 2016 Teacher of the Year award and the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education for Outstanding Teacher of Speech and Theatre. “I don’t sleep a lot, and I work seven days a week,” Miller says, laughing. “I think it has to become a labor of love, because other things in your life suffer. I don’t see my family a lot. But I really love what I do, so I’m happy.”

The most difficult aspects of producing a district-wide musical have little to do with staging a musical, though. For example, how do you feed more than 100 kids during tech week without losing hours of precious time? How do you keep small children engaged during long rehearsals and help them make their entrances on time — and in the right costumes — during performances?

Miller has cultivated an eager, committed group of parent volunteers to help run the district-wide show smoothly and successfully. During the show, as many as 30 parent volunteers sell concessions, tickets, and flowers. They help performers with hair, costumes, and make-up. They keep a close eye on the youngest cast members in the cafeteria-turned-green room, which is divided into stations for different activities like playing board games, reading books, doing homework, eating snacks, and changing costumes. The tremendous parent support has been essential to the growth of the district-wide program.

Parent volunteer Elaine Fucci marvels at Miller’s drive. Even after long, arduous tech rehearsals during Peter Pan, Miller would send several late-night emails to prepare cast members and parents for the next day. “She didn’t forget anything.” Fucci says. “She’s such a pleasure to work with. I can’t say no to her.”

 

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Growing up

Hoboken High School is in the midst of a renaissance, and the district-wide show has gradually emerged as a key element of the school’s transformation. In the past, Principal Robin Piccapietra says, area parents with the means were more likely to send their children to a private or suburban school. Hoboken High School is a Title I school with a predominantly Hispanic student body, and many parents tried to avoid what they perceived to be a troubled, urban high school.

But the districtwide show has helped shift that mindset. “It’s just a nice way to bring the community together,” says Piccapietra. “The people who don’t usually come to my high school get to experience my students. A lot of students are not in the play, but they work backstage, work the concession, and help out in so many little areas. Sometimes people leave here and say, ‘Wow, those kids are so great!’ And I say, ‘I know! I know, and I’m so glad you had the opportunity to see that.’”

Notion.pngThrough the theatre program, parents become acquainted with each other and with the high schoolers themselves. Younger kids look forward to being the big kids in the musical one day. Families come in and out of the high school regularly for rehearsals and performances. “There’s this notion that the school is subpar, and people decide that without coming to see it, without experiencing it,” says Barbara Melfi, one of the districtwide show’s parent volunteers. “Through the theatre program, we have been in the school every year for five years, so we get to see what the school actually is. My daughter could’ve gone to whatever school she wanted to, and she wouldn’t even apply to any others. Because of the theatre program, she wanted to be here.”

Miller has steadily grown the districtwide musical, nearly tripling the number of students involved during the past five years and consistently selling out her 800-seat theatre, making the production one of Hoboken’s biggest events, an opportunity for students of all ages to share their passion for theatre with families from the community. “I’ve always found the musicals and the plays and the drama club productions to be wonderful for schools, but this districtwide show is different,” says Christine Johnson, Hoboken’s superintendent.

“It takes all of the great creative components that the kids are exposed to when they’re doing a regular show at the high school level or middle school level,” she says, “and it embraces and cultivates a communitywide spirit. That doesn’t happen in a lot of districts. In Hoboken, it’s important, because the district is going through a transition and a renaissance. It’s rebuilding. The tradition of this show is the core and the anchor for the work that’s going on, bridging our youngest learners with our oldest learners and bringing families together.”

After the show, people stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby, snapping photos, handing out flowers, hugging. Cast members sign autographs, relishing their success following months of hard work and long nights. Even the pre-show stress of replacing Nana has vanished, replaced by the warmth and satisfaction that comes with performing a great show.

School theatre presents many challenges. Students, and educators, learn a great deal — life skills, teamwork, reading, math, carpentry, public speaking — by rising to meet those challenges, year after year. “It’s great, because I watch their confidence build,” Miller says. “I watch them become more comfortable with themselves, be more willing to take chances, give better auditions, and really be proud of what they do.”

Her efforts demonstrate that theatre also strengthens communities by bringing people together to enjoy a great story, well told, and to applaud the achievements of young people. “If people say that they couldn’t believe how professional the show was, that’s what I’m looking to accomplish,” Miller says. “It doesn’t mean that’s always attainable. But every kid thinking they did a good job, that they were a part of something, that they feel valued and proud of themselves, and that they stood onstage and spoke — if I have a kid who was really shy eight weeks ago and now they’re speaking for themselves, that’s incredible. That means this changed them.”

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