Actor Michael James Scott stands and smiles with four cast members of Aiken High School's production of Aladdin JR.
Michael James Scott with Aiken High School students. Photo credit David Slaughter Photography Network

Maybe you were taken to the theatre as a young child, and the stage lights and dazzling costumes filled you with joy. Maybe in elementary school you played a gnarled tree in the spring musical and theatre became your passion. Maybe you found theatre as a high school student and fell in love with the technical aspects. But what if you grew up in a situation where going to the theater wasn’t an option, or your school didn’t offer any kind of theatre education? These are realities for some of you and we see you!

The Pathway program works to bring theatre education into schools where there is a need. In addition, the program supports racial equity in school theatre. This is a story about the power that participating in theatre has had on students and their teacher at Aiken New Tech High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Educational Theatre Foundation, the fundraising arm of Educational Theatre Association awarded Aiken a $10,000 Pathway grant. The results are a dream come true.

Theatre Fuels Passions 

Ms. Terri McCoy, Aiken’s Vocal and Digital Music Director, explained that the show had a powerful effect on participants as well as other students. She said, “Having the opportunity to bring live theater back to Aiken has been huge! We sold out all three performances; we never expected audience sizes like this. And the student interest [in theatre] after seeing Disney’s Aladdin JR. has increased. I have students already asking about the show next year. They really want to try theatre because they saw this cast and crew put on a quality performance and had a great time doing it.”

three adults in front of theater stage
(l to r) Terri McCoy, Michael James Scott, and Piper N. Davis. Photo credit David Slaughter Photography Network

There was no denying the pure joy on the cast members’ faces after opening night! They spilled out from backstage and ran to family and friends who had filled the audience space. Parents hugged students and congratulated them on a job well done. Friends slapped backs and laughed with abandon. Ms. McCoy said, “This has renewed my energy and reminded me of how much I love teaching these students.” This is no small feat coming off two years of pandemic-induced challenges and for teachers and students.

Many of the students shared positive feedback after the show’s run. Jacob Webster, lighting manager, was surprised at just how complicated the lighting system really is. He loved learning how the lighting system works and is eager to work lights on the next production. Star’nasia Johnson who played a beggar says the three most powerful memories she’s keeping from the show are the courage it took, the hope it gave her, and the loyalty she felt among the cast. Meaya Williams played in the ensemble and said her greatest memory is hearing Ms. McCoy tell them after the show that this was the most fun she’d ever had with them! And Christine Diaz, student director, said, “I learned how to be more responsible, to have patience with people, and to let them learn their lessons on their own.”

How the Magic Happened

The Pathway funding brought an experience to the Aiken students and teachers that no one could have imagined. Michael James Scott flew in from Broadway and spent the day with the cast and crew! Mr. Scott plays the Genie in Broadway’s production of Aladdin. (The grant also made it possible for Aiken to purchase the licensing rights to Disney’s Aladdin JR.)

Mr. Scott told students how his parents helped him find every opportunity possible to get involved with theatre: church productions and rec center plays. He said he hoped they took full advantage of the opportunity to be involved with the musical. He carved out a bit of time, one on one, with Edward Johnson who played the Genie in Aiken’s musical. They talked about how to prepare before the show to bring magical energy to the stage. Mr. Scott also worked with the full cast on the popular musical number, Friend Like Me.

Students also benefitted from working with Piper N. Davis whose business card says she’s the Audience Engagement Manager at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park but who is a powerhouse of theatre experience. As a Black woman whose credits include acting and directing, she represented a reality that gave the students a chance to see themselves doing what she does.

Ms. Davis explained, “I’m assisting the director at Playhouse. So, at Aiken I worked with the students in small groups and gave them coaching, notes, and encouragement. I reminded them to come on stage with authority. On the cultural end, it’s important for them to see a professional who looks like them. I was excited when I heard about the Pathway program and its efforts to provide racial equity! I’ve seen the students blossom. Some started a little timid, and yet they had a wonderful time. When the Genie (Mr. Scott) came, they were enthralled. Ms. McCoy is doing a great job, and yet it helps so much for the students to see people that look like them.”

Representation Makes a Difference

Professional photographer, David Slaughter, quickly realized that two of the students at Aiken were passionate about photography. The students proudly told Mr. Slaughter they were starting their own photography business! And though it was well outside his contracted duties—Mr. Slaughter was hired to photograph the visit with the Genie and capture the performance on opening night—he connected with these young entrepreneurs and talked with them at length. The students shadowed Mr. Slaughter on opening night, too. Mr. Slaughter said, “It’s great to see young people doing what they love at such a young age. Experience is a great way to learn, build, and advance skills needed to contribute to any community. Knowing from my own experiences how valuable this is, I consider it a gift to have the opportunity to invest in what they are doing.”

And the reality is that most high school students of any race or ethnicity have little-to-no exposure to what a professional photographer does. Most of us at that age only saw the photographer that came to take school pictures for the yearbook! So, getting to watch Mr. Slaughter, a Black professional, and to talk with him and get feedback from him made a positive difference for the students. Their business efforts got a huge dose of reality, and we all know that kind of encouragement goes a long way to fuel our passions. 

Visit schooltheatre.org to learn more about the power of theatre in our schools.  ♦

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