Laying the groundwork for Disney in schools

January 2, 2017 GMT

Tickets to see Disney’s Broadway show “The Lion King” can cost a pretty penny. And buying the rights to stage your own Disney production? Out of reach for many theater groups.

Unless you’re Mendota Elementary, a school on Madison’s North Side whose population is 79 percent low-income. Come Jan. 11, a cast of 60 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders — along with a staff of seven adults who have never put on a big show before — will begin their own mini-production of the world’s most successful Disney musical.

Helping them will be Karl Miller and J. Adam Shelton, regional “Teaching Artists” trained by Disney in an intense — but relentlessly lively — week of workshops held at the Overture Center in early December. The skills those teaching artists learned will be put to use on school stages across the city, starting this month.

Mendota is one of four elementary schools participating this year in Disney Musicals in Schools, or DMIS. DMIS awarded the Overture Center for the Arts a $100,000 grant to lay the groundwork for developing theater programs in under-resourced area elementary schools.

Mendota, Falk, Glendale and Hawthorne elementary schools will participate in 2017; the program is expected to expand to four more grade schools next year.

Disney’s approach is to train local teaching artists, who then go into a school and help that school’s existing faculty — music teachers, art teachers, principals and others — become, effectively, Broadway show producers. Many will have to pull together sets and costumes on a shoe-string budget, bringing in parents and community members for support.

At the end of 17 weeks of rehearsals — 90-minute rehearsals, held twice weekly after school — the students will stage their own school musical. They’ll also be invited to perform in a showcase at the Overture Center before friends and family.

Along with the teaching artist expertise, the Disney program grants each school a free performance license to a 30-minute Disney KIDS musical, and a show kit that includes a director’s guide, student scripts, cross-curricular activities, vocal CDs and a choreography DVD.

At Mendota Elementary, “They don’t have a stage, they don’t have lights, they have one microphone,” said Miller. “So this (program) is building from the bottom. Adam and I are just ready to guide them using what they have — and how we can (put together “The Lion King”) without 80 million lights and all these microphones.

“And that is what the program is about,” said Miller. “Guiding them on how to start the program, how to get the community involved, fundraising so that maybe in the future they can purchase a portable stage or microphones.

“They know it’s a big challenge. But they’re ready for it. That’s why they expressed the interest from the get-go and applied for this project.”

Disney Musicals in the Schools started in 2009-10 in New York City, said Lisa Mitchell, senior manager for education and outreach for the Disney Theatrical Group.

Disney had long sold youth show licenses to theater groups and high schools. In 2004, it expanded its offerings to include scripts tailored to the grade-school crowd.

But in 2009, “we took a look at which of the schools were producing these shows” for younger children, Mitchell said.

“And what we found was not that surprising — that it was typically schools in more affluent parts of the country, typically suburban schools, that were producing shows at the elementary and middle school level,” she said. “In lower economic areas, and in cities in particular, schools were just not doing these shows.

“So the program was really born to fill that need. Because here we were, headquartered in New York City, right in the heart of Broadway, and schools a 15- or 20-minute subway ride away in Harlem or the Bronx or Brooklyn or Queens just didn’t have access to this work.”

Disney invited New York’s 700 elementary schools to apply for its new program, and selected a handful to try it out. Since then, DMIS has expanded into a national program based in 13 cities.

“The whole goal of the program is to cultivate sustainable musical theater traditions in elementary schools who currently don’t have them,” Mitchell said.

“And we do that by working with the young people to put on their first school musical, but more importantly, we work with their classroom teachers to train them to be directors and choreographers, music directors and stage managers. So when we’re not there in the future, they have the tools that they need to do this work without us.”

Theater programs can teach students a range of 21st-century skills, such as creative problem-solving, public speaking, even science, technology and math skills in the backstage building of a set, she noted.

“But you’re doing it in a way that everybody who’s participating is deeply engaged and having a lot of fun,” she said.

Laurie Fellenz, fine arts coordinator for Madison schools, agrees. “We want our students to have resilience and growth mindset, to be creative, to be kinesthetically involved in what they’re learning,” she said.

“I think it’s really important that we’re offering these authentic opportunities for our students to grow in areas such as those.”

The goal of the program “certainly isn’t to create professional artists,” said Mitchell of Disney.

“But like any other career, you’ll never know if you’re good at something unless you’re exposed to it. We see on our stages sometimes a lack of diversity. And that comes down to exposure: Who had an opportunity to participate in this stuff at an age where they were hooked and could pursue it at the high school level, and who didn’t?”

After their initial year in the program, schools get a second free performance license for a different Disney show.

The teaching artists move on to work with other schools, but the school faculty team gets to participate in a one-day musical theater workshop at the Overture Center to build on the skills they learned the first year.

In year three, a school can get a 25 percent discount on rights to a Disney show (usually costing elementary schools around $350-$500) or can choose a non-Disney show to perform, and can participate in a third-year workshop at Overture.

This year the teaching team at Hawthorne Elementary — including the principal, music and art teachers and a classroom teacher — will produce Disney’s “Aristocats,” chosen by the school because of its connection with American history and the Jazz Age, said Helen Behr, learning coordinator at Hawthrone.

“There seems like an opportunity for academic tie-ins, and the opportunity for students to do research and projects about the Jazz Age and the musicians who are featured in the musical,” she said of the play’s selection.

Hawthorne, where seven of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, traditionally does an annual musical for fourth and fifth-graders through the school’s music class, Behr said. “Aristocats” will be a chance for third- through fifth-graders to be on stage in a sophisticated Disney musical.

Right now “we’re in the advertising stage, letting students know this is what we’re doing,” she said. “Permission slips will go home in January. Our hope is to involve as many kids as possible” by making the DMIS rehearsals an add-on to Hawthorne’s existing after-school program. Still, “the time commitment for two 90-minute rehearsals a week is quite a big deal for a lot of families to commit to.”

But once families commit, their children will be helping to build a sustainable program for their schools, said Sarah Dolens-Moon, an education associate for Children’s Theater of Madison.

“I really like that this is about access, and giving as many students as possible access to the theater, to the performing arts,” said Dolens-Moon, who trained last month to be a teaching artist for Falk Elementary’s production of “The Jungle Book KIDS.”

“I think our training kept that in mind,” she said, “that ultimately, this is the school’s program.”