High school theater programs mix love of performance with foundational life skills

If “all the world’s a stage,” as William Shakespeare so eloquently put it, then St. Vrain Valley Schools’ high schools are taking a cue from the Bard of Avon himself. From stage classics like Cabaret and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Colorado premier of Catch Me if You Can, St. Vrain Valley high schools are using its theater programs to instill not only a love and appreciation of live performance on its students, but build a foundation of skills and talents that are useful offstage as well.

“I love the idea of the entire cast, crew and production staff having to all come together in order for the show to be a success,” said Scott Wright, who serves as theater director at Erie High School. “The production is not only about the end product, but rather the process of getting there.”

Erie High School produces five shows each year. The main stage shows, which include productions in the fall and winter, a spring musical, student-directed one acts, and a summer production through the Erie High theater camp for kids, involves anywhere between 20 and 65 high school students per production depending on the requirements of the show.  

As for curriculum, Wright said approximately 100 students are enrolled among the high school’s three theater classes---Beginning Drama Class, Advanced Drama Class, and Beginning Stage Technology Class. The Beginning Drama class is geared towards true beginners and is structured in a way that helps students strengthen their confidence and public speaking skills by learning about character development, scene study and the basics of improv.

“Roughly half of the beginner class has never stepped foot on a stage before,” Wright said.

The Advanced Drama class takes a more in-depth look into acting practices. Students look at theater through a director’s eye by researching historical aspects of the play, while the Beginning Stage Design class is an overview of lighting design, sound design, costume design, scenic design and other theatrical elements.

Les Dweir, director of the drama club and theater company at Silver Creek High School, said live performance provides a multitude of learning opportunities for high school students. Silver Creek High School has four shows annually, and 80 students are involved between the school Drama Club and Silver Creek High School theater Company.

“The camaraderie that develops with all involved in a production: actors, musicians, techies, designers, builders, directors, stage managers, parents, teachers…there is just nothing like it,” said Dweir.

Students interested in acting or directing not only understand the importance of memorizing and understanding a script, but they can learn about empathy, history, societal values and human relationships.

“Those who work backstage have their own set of learning experiences,” Dweir added. “They learn to build scenery with the help of set builders in the community—handling tools properly and measuring pieces to fit and function as a whole unit. Painters who choose color and design are often helped by art teachers. Students design posters, playbill covers, take photos with the help of the photography teacher, and other students choreograph songs and dances with the help of a professional choreographer.”

Theater can also teach students how to prioritize responsibilities and build healthy habits that last a lifetime, said Andrea Mackey, English and drama teacher at Mead High School.

“Students learn valuable lessons in collaborating and task management as the show really becomes theirs,” Mackey said. “In a small school like Mead, students are also very involved in many areas. They take AP classes, play sports, hold jobs, play instruments, sing, dance and even work in the trades. Their involvement in theater teaches them how to balance their very busy lives. The confidence they build in the arts helps them to be more successful in their academic pursuits.”

She said this is the first year Mead High School is producing two shows; usually the high school has only one performance annually. Approximately 70 students are involved with theater through the co-curricular and curricular programs, and Mead High School recently chartered a thespian troupe through the International Thespian Society.

St. Vrain Valley high school theater programs are also engaging the next generation of actors, directors, and designers through creative partnerships with feeder schools and their local communities.  

For example, Erie High’s summer theater camp is open to third grade through eighth grade students, providing a chance to perform in a production put on by the camp, said Wright. Beyond the summer camp theater performance, at least one main stage school production of the Erie High season features casts members from feeder elementary and middle schools. Wright credits the growth of the school’s theater program to a mentoring program that was established a few years ago.  

“This continued opportunity for the younger theater students to perform and work alongside the high theater students creates a great sense of mutual admiration and peer support,” he said.

In 2014, Mead High School produced the musical Willy Wonka, and for this performance, more than 20 elementary and middle school students were invited to perform as Oompa Loompas—the green-haired, orange-skinned minions of the title character—and squirrels alongside the high school actors on stage.

“It was a fantastic community event. I still hear from parents about how much it meant to their children to be on stage with the ‘big kids,’” Mackey said. “As we grow, we are seeking new ways to support the theatrical endeavors of the feeder schools.”