The marvels of the structures and amenities of Wakefield’s beautiful new George L. Ohrstrom Jr. Theater & Auditorium have been well documented since its opening, but that attention needs to include not just the facility, and not just the results that we see as audience members for performances, but also the actual educational benefits of having such a structure on campus. Expanding our understanding of the GLO’s benefits to include its role in teaching and learning illuminates both the educational work of Wakefield’s accomplished performing arts instructors, and the role of the arts in education.
The recent rousing success of the Upper School production of The Addams Family marked the conclusion of the Arts Department’s first full season in this facility, and created an opportune moment for reflection by Mr. David Grimes, Wakefield Director of the Arts, performing arts instructor, and director of this year’s The Poe Show and The Addams Family; Ms. Katy Miner, performing arts instructor and director of this year’s The Wizard of Oz, Wakefield’s first 4th through 8th grade musical; and Mr. Michael “Jonz” Jones, performing arts instructor and both Technical Director and set designer for all shows. Below, they shine a light as educators on ways that the GLO has given new opportunities to them and to our students. Spoiler: They’re starting them younger now!
Mr. Grimes and Ms. Miner
Mr. Grimes: Because performing arts encompasses so many skills—communication, language skills, mathematics, science, hands-on STEAM and STEM skill, computer programming skills, light and art and the combination of color—it encompasses so much that when we have a building that is dedicated to that, that we can go into and explore at almost any time of the day, it allows for that learning to happen immediately, whereas when it was the gym, it was just two weeks [before each show] to try to encompass all of that. Now students can “lay eyes on it,” and specifically, see state-of-the-art “it,” [i.e., the tools of theater-craft].
Ms. Miner: There’s so much to the educational aspect. In the 6th and 7th grade theater rotation, we can now take them to an actual working functioning theater, and we can show them the actual facets of theater. Before it was hard to visualize technical theater, or the lights or the sounds, because you can’t see it, you can’t see it functioning. They also learn that you don’t have to be a performer to be part of this process. There are so many people behind the scenes, and just seeing the students really take to that…For our shows, that is something our students have to choose to do with their free time [after school], because it isn’t really built into the school day, and between the three productions this year, over 40% of the students in Middle School chose to be a part of that—over 40%, whether that was onstage, or building and painting sets. And those numbers really grow when we went down into the Lower School with Wizard of Oz—when we offered that to the 4th and 5th grades, we couldn’t even handle the sheer number of kids…100% of 4th graders and about 95% of 5th graders chose to be a part of it.
Mr. Grimes: The remarkable thing about the participation is that the excitement has grown exponentially just this year, and I think that is a direct result of having this facility here all the time. When we met with our Lower School classes after Addams Family and we asked them if they had been to the show, and I’d say over 90% of students in 3rd through 5th had seen the show—and even below, right down to first grade, there were students who had come to the show. [The GLO] has added certainly to our department, but I’d like to say that it has added to our community as a whole, because of what it can service and what it can do.
Ms. Miner: The week before Addams Family, we took the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders down to the GLO and let them actually walk onto the set, to see it up close and walk through it, and having those moments just builds the excitement…for us especially, seeing that excitement building in these lower grades, and what that’s going to open up, for potential theater classes and other [parts of the program] we need to build.
Mr. Grimes: And as those students move forward, and that excitement builds, we are now looking forward to making a three-year plan curricularly, so that when they get to the Upper School, there are classes and curricular vehicles to fulfill the excitement that has built. And that is all doable because we have the space to do it in.
Ms. Miner: One of the things I think is important is the social aspect, and at such an awkward age, like in Middle School. Seeing these kids come alive with confidence, and friendships form, and with Addams Family, seeing these seniors with 6th graders—
Mr. Grimes: At the first rehearsal, it was like, Middle School over here, Upper School over here…and by the end of the day, some of the best friendships in that show were between Middle Schoolers and Upper Schoolers. Also, the kids who bring [a natural gift for performing] to what they do are not so much a threat as they are an opportunity, for others to see how they do what they do, and to learn from that, and to say, “Maybe I can do that, too.” That’s what I think is so wonderfully supportive in what we do down here each day.
Ms. Miner: And between the three shows, Poe, Oz, and Addams Family, every single person who auditioned, we found a place for them—every single one had a place on that stage, every single kid who wanted to do tech had a place learning how to do it.
Mr. Grimes: One of the things I love about theater is that there is a place for everyone in theater! From our Stage Manager for Addams Family, who likes to be organized and likes to be in control…there’s a place for that personality, there’s a place for a totally creative personality, there’s a place for someone who just wants to sit and paint. There’s a place for everyone.
Ms. Miner: And that’s our job and our responsibility, to make sure that every kid who steps on what stage understands that they are wanted, and they are embraced. That responsibility falls on us, to create that dynamic amongst our cast, and I’m super proud of the cohesive unit they formed.
And getting back to the point of the conversation—being able to be in that space for the whole rehearsal process was a huge part of that, because they could see the set being built, they could see that week by week we were getting closer to that endgame, rather than this chaos in the last three weeks.
Mr. Grimes: It’s a building process…and the proof is when you put it on stage and magic happens.
The difference between [staging shows] in the gym and in the GLO is the amount of time we can invest in teaching the kids how to do what they want to do. The first show I did here [as set designer] was Oliver!, and Ray Karns walked me in and showed me the [gym], and I said, “Sure, we can put up a set in here, no problem”—but I didn’t realize how short a time they gave to the technical aspects of a show. I was coming from the Kennedy Center, from theme parks and from universities and other theaters where we would spend two or three months [staging] a show…[Here], we would put something up in a week [because that’s all the lead-time we could get in the gym]. We would change the whole [gym] into a theater in a week, and try to get as much done as we possibly could in a week while they were also trying to tech the show!
Now, I have Middle School students who worked on [all three shows] this year who have worked with me one whole semester and half of this one, and I’ve been able to teach them things I wasn’t able to teach before…Before, they were basically paint minions! Parents were coming in and helping, which was great, and we’d throw things together and the kids would paint them. But now, I can take the time, and I can come in and say, “We’re going to build a Hollywood-style flat…and I’m going to show you how,” and then I walk away, and if it takes them three afternoons to do it, it doesn’t matter, because we’re not on that we-have-to-get-this-done-in-a-week-and-a-half schedule where I needed to say, “Sorry, but I have to do this myself because I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I can get it done in two hours.”
I have seventh graders now who are my best carpenters…Is everything we build straight? No. But they’re here to learn. And for Addams Family, when say 80% of that set was built by students—80% of that was built by Middle Schoolers! I built the main set of stairs myself, and [for the back escape stairs] I showed [four Middle Schoolers] what I did and I explained my process, and then I stepped back and just let them go at it. And the bottom two steps were a little wonky, I had to shim them up a bit after they were gone, but they built that set of escape stairs themselves, after being shown how I built the others.
And for Oz—we wanted that to look like a little kids’ show, so that was built by the Middle Schoolers and painted by the 4th and 5th graders. And there was paint everywhere, and there’s still paint everywhere, but... Reagan Middle School [in Prince William County] bought that set from us! They bought it from us, and now she is passing it on [to other schools who’ve contacted me about it], so our set built by our 4th through 8th graders is being passed around for other schools to do The Wizard of Oz.
I’m excited for next year, because I’m going to have kids coming back, and I can say to them, “Hey, here’s a drill! Please put this together for me!” During the tech process of it, these kids are running the show. Middle Schoolers have been our backstage crew, moving scenery in and out. We had an 8th grade stage manager for both Oz and Addams Family—that’s a lot of responsibility. We had a 7th grader [managing this side of the stage], students who were my deck charges, we had two girls doing props…and at this point, we were a running functioning theater with stage hands who knew their jobs, knew what other people needed to do, who ran our follow-spots, and with the exception of Marshall Bassam, who was backstage, and Riley Harper, who ran our console…they were all Middle Schoolers.
Oz photography by Toby Reidway, Irish Eyes Photography by Toby
Addams Family photography by Ashley Cuppett