STARS Students Showing Their 'True Colors'
"For the past four years, the shows have been getting bigger and better, and audiences never fail to leave feeling as if they've gotten more than their money's worth out of the evening," says Sue Kemple, director of the middle school and arts programs at Sandhills Theatre Arts Renaissance School.
The annual Broadway-style musical that includes the entire student body from fourth through eighth grade, has become a tradition at the school. The previous four years, the group has staged "Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.," "Honk! Jr.," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and "Smokey Joe's Caf" at the Sunrise Theater.
"This year, with an arts staff that has doubled in size, the idea emerged to do something different, something bigger, and something that no group had ever done before," says Kemple.
"True Colors," an original work, is the latest in the Sandhills Renaissance Players' series of popular spring shows, which is set to be performed Friday, June 6, and Saturday, June 7.
Since 2003, the group has performed at the Sunrise Theater, but the size and scope of this year's performance required more space. So, with the help of Pinecrest High School's assistant principal Keith Davies and theater arts teacher Adam Faw, the Sandhills Players have been able to make use of the space in the Robert E. Lee Auditorium on the Pinecrest campus.
"The extra space allows the students to spread out more, with a more focused concentration on dance and movement than has been possible in the past," says Kemple.
Kemple decided to cede her usual jobs of casting and stage direction to newly hired theater arts teacher, Tom Dalton, whom she describes as "exponentially more qualified than I am" to direct a quality play.
"His background is as impressive as the way in which he works with these students," Kemple says of Dalton, who also serves as the director of education at Temple Theatre in Sanford.
"He is demanding. I feel as if I'm walking into a college classroom when he's teaching, and the kids are responding positively to his college-level expectations."
The first thing Dalton and his group of middle school theater elective students did was brainstorm the idea for an original show. They drew upon their own experiences and crafted a script that explored the issues of bullying, the consequences that result from those actions, and the adolescent quest to discover who they really are.
"I really like this story," says Nick Lacy, a seventh-grader who has been attending Sandhills Renaissance since the first grade, and is a featured actor and dancer in the show. "There's a moral to the story that we can all relate to, because the kids came up with it to begin with."
They used the model of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to frame the show, and then Dalton, with help from Kemple and language arts teacher Cathy Lovendahl, revised the final script. Once Dalton cast the actors, they were expected to be off-book (know their lines) within two weeks. For the most part, they were.
"It was really challenging to learn all those lines," says James Holland-Kemple, a sixth-grader who plays the bully in the show. "Playing this part is really hard work. Mr. Dalton is a great director, though. He's pushing me harder than anyone ever has."
To flesh out the show as a musical, music teacher Ellis Brooks chose several popular songs from the 20th century. Among the songs are favorites from Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Phil Collins, and Sarah McLachlan.
"He has worked tirelessly with his general chorus, honors choir, and featured soloists to produce beautiful harmonies that sound well beyond the years of his young singers," says Kemple.
Carmen Jones, the school's new dance teacher who is also an instructor at Terpsichore Dance Studio, rounds out the production with truly impressive choreography. The visual colors that accompany the opening number set the stage for the production, and more upbeat numbers follow. The dances even include a tap dance, with the janitor using a broom instead of a cane.
"The show promises much for its audience, but it's just as important for the performers," says Kemple.
Each year after end-of-grade testing has concluded at the school, the preparation for the show kicks into high gear as the culmination of a year's worth of arts-integrated education for all grade levels.
"The timing of the show, coming just as the school year comes to an end, helps to keep the students fully engaged, motivated, and excited about coming to school and working with their peers and teachers on a major project of their own making," says Kemple.
"This school is so different from the one I came from," says Brionna Townsend, a seventh-grader new to the school, who plays the bully's mother and has a solo number. "Here, we know that the production isn't just an extra. It's really important, a big deal, and the arts staff expects us to make commitments and care about the job we do."
It goes without saying that a good number of students are on stage giving the show life through their songs and dancing. But those who work behind the scenes are equally important.
Kemple's vision has always been to include everyone in the school and embrace all the students' varied talents. With the guidance of several teachers on staff, students are given real responsibilities in running the show.
They build the sets, run the light and sound boards, handle scene changes, and take charge of the dozens of tasks that must be performed to make a production like this work. The adults work mostly as facilitators in helping the students bring all the arts to life -- music, art, dance, and drama -- through the medium of a musical production.
"Remembering everything I have to do isn't the easiest thing," says Megan Cooper, the seventh-grade stage manager. "But it's pretty cool to work with the teachers and the cast, to have all this responsibility and to know that the adults trust you to do the job well."
"There is a place for everyone in our productions, no matter what their talents might be," Kemple says. "Whether the lessons learned come from being responsible for organizing the props, choreographing some dance moves, designing the light plot, or gaining confidence from performing on the stage, the experience our students gain from staging these shows is always profound -- and often, even life-changing."
Sixth-grader Gabriel Ingram-Childs, who is new to the school this year and plays a major role in the show, agrees.
"Here, they encourage us to be creative and be ourselves," he says. "At some schools, it's more like they want everyone to be the same. But with this show, you see everyone can't be the same, or else you can't have a show. It's kinda like life in a way."
While the audience might not find the show to be a life-changing experience, Kemple guarantees it will be entertaining.
"You might think I'm biased, but these are some exceptionally talented students," she says. "It's not your typical school play. No one who comes will be disappointed."
"True Colors" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 6, and Saturday, June 7. Tickets are $8 for adults, and admission for students 12 and under is free. Tickets are available at the school office.
Further ticket information is available by calling the school office at 695-1004.
"The show is made possible through the kind contributions of many area sponsors, and in particular through the generosity of Longleaf Community Bank, a division of Four Oaks, with branches in Rockingham and Southern Pines," says Kemple.
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