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Middle-schoolers shine on stage

Students at McLoughlin, Hedrick and Ruch middle schools delivered their drama club capstone performances last week. It was electrifying to see these young actors say their lines, engage on stage and block scenes. It was moving to see the students help each other and work together as a cast.

McLoughlin, Hedrick and Ruch don’t have theater programs. The schools don’t have a stage with risers, curtains, lights or a sound system. There’s no drama teacher on the faculty. But this fall, the schools had drama clubs, led by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Tamra Mathias and Sarah Eismann.

Medford School District Chief Academic Officer Michelle Cummings proposed the idea to expose students to theater through middle-school dramatic residencies and 10th grade engagement. The project, which ran about $89,000, brought Mathias and Eismann to the middle schools and will send all 1,000 of Medford school district’s 10th graders to OSF’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” next spring, complete with prologues and talk backs. For many of the students, “Midsummer” will be the first play they will see.

Over the course of the fall term, the students settled the narratives they wanted to perform and developed the characters they played. At McLoughlin and Hedrick, Mathias, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor and educator, organized their ideas into a script. OSF staffer Eismann worked with the Ruch students. The schools had very different ideas about what was important, what statement their plays would make to their audiences and to their fellow students.

At McLoughlin, “Bio-Seed” was a post-apocalyptic wasteland that can survive only if a cat/rat hybrid can restore the planet’s food system.

Hedrick’s play, “Nova’s Dream/Olga’s Nightmare,” centered on insider/outsider status and girls who bully. At Ruch, students used the Cinderella tale to articulate the elements of the story but also the technical aspects of a dramatic narrative.

Quinn Riley, a sixth-grader at McLoughlin, explained their approach to what turned out to be a layered, complicated story of diversity, human and planetary survival and moral choice.

“We agreed on a theme, good versus bad, and the setting, a post-apocalyptic world, then we made some characters and put them into roles either good or bad,” Riley said. “Then we developed what they were looking for and some roadblocks.”

Riley had a leading role in “Bio-seed,” but not every student can have a major role in a dramatic production, and that can lead to disappointment.

“I was Student No. 2 (in Hedrick’s “Nova’s Dream/Olga’s Nightmare”), and I was a little bit sad because I tried out for a bigger role,” Zoe Andresen said of her role. “But I was excited because I could do so much more. I helped with costumes and other stuff. I felt really proud because I was a big part of the play.”

Mathias saw a wide variety of students in the drama club, many who started out reserved but opened up through the dramatic exercises. “Theater is very emotional,” Mathias said.

“I thought it was going to be scary, because there was an audience,” said Hedrick middle-schooler Angie Bancelos Robles, “but it was comforting being with my friends, my show biz family!”

“We’re so grateful to OSF for partnering with us, they’re a huge part of our community,” noted Natalie Hurd, communications and public relations specialist with the Medford School District.

“I think this is a starting point for us, because this project shows the power and possibility of live theater. Anything that can connect kids to the school experience affects retention and helps kids graduate.”

“Not all students are interested in math or science, and when you offer something like drama then all of a sudden their interest piques and they can shine,” explained Ruch Middle School Principal Julie Barry. “These are the kids who are unique and interesting, and they’ve found others like them; they’ve found their niche within our school community.”

Not everything was perfect in the performances. At times, students forgot their lines, and entrances and exits could be confusing. Not every student had a leading role, and costumes and props were scavenged from closets and drawers. But it takes guts to be on stage at any age, and after standing ovations, these middle-schoolers stood tall. Every student was a star performer, every one carrying the confidence and excitement that only live theater can bring.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Maureen Flanagan Battistella photo The full cast of McLaughlin Middle School’s production of “Bio-Seed,” Savanna Dunn, Jessalyn Lumbreras, Teddy Peckham, Ernesto Ochoa, Jayme Short, Alex Boyles, Makayla Kester, Tahlia Mitchell, Zander Ford, DJ Freeman, Quinn Riley, Rebekah Salamanca and drama coach, Tamra Mathias.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella photo Clockwise from left: Nabryah Byrd (Olga), Hiiakaikapoliopele Kekpi (Nova), Aurelia Yates (Leo), drama coach Tamra Mathias, Jazmine Sirnio (Sushi), all from Hedrick Middle School’s production of “Nova’s Dream/Olga’s Nightmare”