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Behind the Curtain of Principia’s Theatre Program

 

Upper School Production: Bringing Everyone Along

The curtain rises, the music swells, lights flood the stage, and a student steps into the spotlight. 

We all know the final product of a Principia production. Many have sat in the audience as Principia students commanded the stage, evoking laughter and tears. But what can be said of the preparation? The months and hours dedicated to set building, costuming, and rehearsing, all on top of students’ regularly scheduled school work and extracurricular activities. “It’s a huge team effort,” says director and Theatre Arts teacher Gabe McManus (C’95). “But it's so rewarding to have the students involved in every single piece of it.”

And involved they are. From the tech, backstage, costume, and set-building crews to the cast members, there isn’t a single aspect of production that doesn’t involve students. But behind the hours spent crafting the performance, the students are quietly learning lessons in accountability and initiative. When regularly scheduled academic and extracurricular activities got in the way of rehearsals, McManus says the students were quick to step up and fill the roles of any absent peers. “[They’d say] ‘I'll fill that role. I'll teach [the missing student] what they missed so they can get up to speed quickly when they get back.’ The students are taking ownership of [the play] and bringing everybody along with them.”

And while the excitement of production and the accolades received along the way certainly bolster morale, McManus sees a more practical outcome of time spent treading the boards. “Theatre teaches lessons that are so useful in the rest of [the students’] lives,” he says. “They see they can take on a project like this. They work hard to put their best foot forward. The lessons they learn and the growth they experience are going to serve them for the rest of their lives.”

 

 

Middle School Theatre Week: Making the Impossible Happen

Principia Middle School’s Theatre Week takes the whole Upper School production process and concentrates it into one week. “I think [our program is] one of a kind,” says Middle School Language Arts teacher and Theatre Week director Fran Hogan-Bimler. “[The students] get to see the impossible happen.”

Impossible it may seem—the students paint sets, learn to operate the soundboard, choose costumes, stage scenes, and learn choreography all within a week. During that time, classes stop, and students and teachers work side by side to overcome limitations. 

“We tell the students, ‘The more prepared you are, the less stressed you'll be.’ That's the theme of life, right?” says Hogan-Bilmer. 

Rather than crumbling under the pressure, students lean into the experience, learning many of the same lessons as Upper School production students. Tight deadlines encourage cast members to take ownership of their roles and come to the table with ideas on delivery and staging. For others, Theatre Week offers them an entrée to experiential learning, allowing them to take the lead and engage in ways they hadn’t before. Recognizing they either succeed or fail as a team, students set themselves to work to complete the tasks assigned to them, with or without teacher supervision. 

“I love Theatre Week,” Hogan-Bilmer says. “... seeing how happy the kids are is just incredible. It's one of my favorite weeks of the year.” 

“For all of us, I think the entire [theatre] process is something wonderful,” says McManus. “It’s something that I enjoy and something the students enjoy too. And when they look back, they'll remember great moments in the theatre with their friends…and so many lessons learned along the way.”