MNA Interview March 2015

Manistee County schools cooperative plays continue to enjoy success

Posted by Ken Grabowski, Manistee News Advocate, on March 29th, 2015

BEAR LAKE — For the past several years the Bear Lake, Onekama and Kaleva Norman Dickson school districts have worked together to put on a drama production.

By working together, it gives three small schools the opportunity to offer a first-rate drama production that wouldn’t be possible on their own. The shows have been a hit with the students and the public who have enjoyed the quality productions.

Serving as director of those shows has been Bear Lake Schools teacher Amanda Harthun. Today, she talks about what makes the program so successful, and how the cooperative venture grows stronger every year.

News Advocate: How did the cooperative drama program at Onekama, Bear Lake and Brethren schools come into existence?

Harthun: The cooperative drama program began when drama was being cut due to budget cuts from Bear Lake Schools schedule. At the time I had a group of students who had been with me from fourth to eighth grade and we did many plays together. I started the plays as a fun way to teach a subject matter, and they evolved into a middle school drama class. These students grew to love theater. They were great kids who weren’t necessarily athletes.

However, I felt they deserved as much recognition and opportunity as athletes get, so I approached our then superintendent, Greg Webster, about the possibility of having an after-school drama program. Brethren had just built a new stage and I asked if we could possibly do something with Brethren. He loved the idea and scheduled a meeting.

When I walked into the first meeting, (Bear Lake Schools principal) Mike Matesich was there, (superintendent) Kevin Hughes and (music teacher) Kathy Joseph were there from Onekama. Also there were Mr. Webster, (principal) Bernier, and (drama teacher) Jackie Karnisz from Brethren. The program was born from that meeting and has been hugely supported by the three districts since.

We are very proud with how much we have grown over the past few years, and the impact it has had on student lives has been astronomical. Many of our students have continued musical theater and/or performance in college or adult life, and still remain friends today.

News Advocate: What are the benefits of the three schools working together on the play?

Harthun: There are many benefits of the three schools working together. We pool our resources, financially, so that we can provide our small school students with a large school experience. We also share fantastic parent volunteers, some of whom are professionals in the arts, who serve as mentors to teams of students in all aspects of production of the show.

The cooperative has enabled artistic students who are often the minority in small rural schools, a chance to be accepted and encouraged by their peers, and with the rare opportunity to get to work with these experienced adults. There is nothing like seeing a student glow and come alive during the musical. We also pool our resources with personnel, as Mrs. Joseph and I oversee the show. Mrs. (Kathy) Spalding, Bear Lake’s band director, plays in the pit orchestra.

I think most of us will agree that getting to do the musical is the highlight of our school year. For me, I love having the opportunity to be reminded why I went into education in the first place. I get to have fun with students and dissect a story, its characters, and their motivations on a deeper level. We do lots of research and have cast wide discussions about the mood we want to create for our audience. We discuss tone of voice and really try to create the world that our characters live in.

When selecting a show, we always keep in mind a lot of things such as finding a show that fits our cast, one that will appeal to our community, and a show that we can live with for about six months, as that truly is the nature of our production. Work begins on the musical in the fall, with previewing and reading scripts and continues into production time.

We also spend time doing other extra-curricular activities together in the “off season.” We have traveled to Chicago, Interlochen, Grand Rapids and East Lansing to take our students to see live stage productions. The Fine Arts Boosters at Onekama have been extremely supportive and have made these opportunities possible for our students.

Some of our students have even been invited to participate in the Ovation Awards, which is a Michigan State University based awards/scholarship recognition program that qualifies two Michigan students for the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York City.

News Advocate: How many students take part in the productions and do they handle the behind the scenes duties as well as acting on stage?

Harthun: On average, our cast used to be about 50 members strong. Recently we have been averaging more like 70 to 90 students. Students handle all aspects of the show from set design, choreography, acting, advertising, lighting and sound design, back stage work and stage management.

News Advocate: Isn’t it true that some of these students have been in these productions for many years and virtually grown up on stage in the roles they take on?

Harthun: It is true that many of our students have been in these productions for years. Just one example is Tucker Laws, who has been our leading male for several shows. He started out as a wolf in our first show, “Beauty and the Beast.”  It is a great example to our younger students, showing them what sticking with something and gaining experience will get you. We typically divide our cast into three groups: “youngers, middles, and olders.” The olders know they are role models for the youngers, and the middles know they are gaining experience to eventually be an older. It is very effective.

News Advocate: Isn’t there a lot of volunteer assistance you receive from parents and members of the community for the production of these shows?

Harthun: We are so lucky to have fantastic assistance from parents and members of the community. In fact, I look forward to the show so much because I get to work with them. They are wonderful people who all share the same vision and belief that arts education is important. I call them the “Creative Dream Team,” and we have many collaborative meetings to come up with a unified vision for the show, and make sure that certain themes repeat throughout the show—in both set, costume, and technical design. We also discuss the entire feel we want for the show. There is a lot of analytical, deep discussion that comes out of those meetings, and students are involved in them as well.

News Advocate: What are the some of the shows you have put on in the past and do you tend to stay with musicals?

Harthun: We tend to stay with musicals because they allow us to encourage other arts-—music, voice, and dance. However, we have tossed around the idea of a “straight show” (non-musical) before. We just haven’t went that direction yet. It doesn’t mean we won’t; we just try to showcase the various student talents we have and even allow students to discover they have these talents.

Our first show was “Beauty and the Beast”, and I remember someone telling me I was dreaming pretty big. I think that was a compliment because dreaming is what got us there in the first place. Every show, I come to the creative team with my “dreams” and then we work together to find a way to make them happen. They have never disappointed me. Other shows we have produced are: Disney’s “Mulan”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Annie”, Willy Wonka, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, “Bye Bye Birdie”, and “Grease”.

News Advocate: What is the show that will be put on this year and what dates will it be running?

Harthun: This year’s show will be “Fiddler on the Roof”. We are running the first weekend in May at Onekama High School.

News Advocate: Is there anything you would like to add?

Harthun: We are so thankful for the great support we have gotten from the community. Our students love to share their learning and story with the audience. We thank the community for coming to past shows, and hope to see many join us for another great show this year. We are spending a great deal of time doing research so that we can perform the show with honor and respect, and we look forward to telling the story of the villagers of Anatevka.