By Brad Hicks
A new after-school class has brought the stage to Unicoi County’s youngest students, and they’ll soon take a curtain call of their own after performing before what is sure to be a packed house.
The Unicoi County High School Drama Department’s Tuesdays on the Stage program, an after-school enrichment class for students at Unicoi County Middle School and in the county’s elementary schools, began in late January. Through the program, these students, who have no drama classes in their schools, are taught the basics of theater.
“Basically, it is an appropriate version of a Theatre Arts I class,” said UCHS Theatre Arts teacher Lori Ann Wright. “It kind of gives them a taste of the stage to see if they like it. Hopefully, it will give them the confidence and courage if they wanted to either audition here as a high school student or audition, maybe, for community theater.”
The Tuesdays on the Stage program is essentially an extended version of Fine Arts camp held at UCHS this past summer. That camp provided the county’s younger students the opportunity to learn from Wright and UCSH Art teacher Annette Tipton, but Wright said instructors were limited in that the camp was only for five days. Wright said she looked for a way to extend the camp experience while having the schedule be convenient for students and parents, leading to the development of the first-ever Tuesdays on the Stage program.
“This is the first time doing it so, of course, we’re trying to see how it works with the school and with the community, how the kids take to it,” Wright said of Tuesdays on the Stage. “So far, they’ve had a blast. We have great students in the course in both our elementary and middle school classes.”
As the name implies, Tuesdays on the Stage classes are held each Tuesday afternoon, with UCMS students getting the first crack at the stage. When their one-hour class ends, elementary schoolers get their turn in the theater.
So far, students enrolled in the Tuesdays on the Stage program have learned how to move on stage, how to create characters, and improvisation techniques. The students will eventually put the skills learned over the course of their classes to use as the spotlight shines upon them.
The 15-week program, which is set to wrap around early May, will culminate with a one-act show for each class. Wright said the elementary school class’ show will likely last around 25 minutes, and the show of the participating UCMS students should last around 45 minutes. These shows will be performed for the friends and family of the participating students.
Wright said each class will soon select its show, and auditions will begin soon afterward.
The middle school and elementary school students taking part in the program have responded with enthusiasm, Wright said.
“They love it,” Wright said. “They love being on the stage. There’s no hesitation for them.”
The younger students backed up Wright’s assertion.
“I think Tuesdays on the Stage is a great experience because you get to do the things that your siblings and friends do,” said UCMS 6th grader Macy Robinson. “And you get to build your skill so when you’re in high school you can rock it.”
“I think it’s a wonderful program and I love that the Drama Department started it,” said UCMS student Olivia Rogers. Her brother Matthew Rogers, an elementary student in the program, added, “It’s so fun, and I love getting to be a part of Drama.”
And Wright said who the younger students get to work alongside may have something to do with the positive response. She said Tuesdays on the Stage is “very much a mentor program,” as current UCHS Drama students serve as counselors for the elementary and middle school students. The younger students are often allowed to take in the productions put on by the high school students, so many of the elementary and middle school students taking part in the program are already familiar with the stage work of their older peers.
Wright said in this way the program falls in line with the core values of the UCHS Drama Department in that the older students are helping bring the next generation on the stage.
“They really look up to the students in our plays, and the opportunity for kids in the class to work with them one-on-one, they love it,” Wright said. “They see them as characters, especially the elementary school students.”
The high schoolers serving as counselors for the Tuesdays on the Stage program have relished the chance to work with the younger students. UCHS seniors Matthew Szucs and Olivia Brackins said they have already seen growth in the younger students’ stage presence.
“Since we did it from summer camp, we kind of got to see the kids grow up a little bit, or at least advance in their theater interests,” Szucs said. “They’re a lot more open on stage. They’re a lot more open in general around people. You kind of get to see the kids explode with character. It’s a lot of fun to kind of be someone they look up to.”
Brackins added it is especially rewarding to see a student break out of his or her shell on the stage.
“I think it’s really enjoyable to see, maybe, a shy kid, just their personality come out on stage,” Brackins said. “It’s so fun that we get to be a part of that because we’ve got to know the kids really well.”
Szucs said the UCHS Drama students assist the younger students by helping them come up with ideas and answering any questions they may have. Brackins said that while the younger Tuesdays on the Stage participants have displayed great imagination, sometimes they are unsure how to put a scene together. She said the high schoolers will step in to offer this type of help when needed.
Wright said it is important that the high schoolers not remain merely observers but participants who act along side the elementary and middle school students.
“Little kids see, ‘This is a high school senior and he’s making these giant, crazy faces onstage. He’s acting crazy. It’s OK to be crazy. It’s OK to be yourself out there,’” Szucs said.
The UCHS Drama students will be onboard to help the younger students through the duration of the Tuesdays on the Stage classes and will help them prepare for their upcoming show.
“That’s going to be kind of like the gift to us,” Szucs said. “We get to see all our effort that we put into those kids, that’s what we get to see in the end is all of them onstage.”
“Just from directing in the past, there’s nothing better than seeing your kids succeed or perform and knowing you had some part of that, helping them,” Brackins added.
And Brackins said the Tuesdays on the Stage program offers something even more important for the children participating, whether or not they intend to pursue theater when they make it to high school.
“Being able to speak is just such a big characteristic that can help you through life, and it’s good for them to learn it at such a young age,” Brackins said. “When they come to the high school, they’ll already have their foot in the door and Ms. Wright will already know them, and it will just be a great advantage for them.”
Wright said some of the elementary and middle schoolers are naturals who have already taken command of the stage.
“Some of them are so talented,” Wright said. “I’m amazed by how creative, especially, the elementary school students are, and they absorb so fast. They’re like giant sponges. Give them the opportunity on the stage and they just branch out immediately.”
Those in the UCHS Drama Department are looking forward to when the curtain is pulled back and the Tuesdays on the Stage participants take to the stage, using what they’ve learned to become the stars of their shows.
“I want them to leave proud they’ve created something,” Wright said.
Although the Tuesdays on the Stage classes have already begun, Wright said there are three slots still open. For more information on the program, including registration information, contact Wright at 743-1632 or via email at [email protected]