NEW FAIRFIELD – “And, Action”, New Fairfield Middle School’s Unified Theater program is being lauded for their endeavors this year. For their production of “Nightmare Near Elm Street High”, Maya Finkle, 6th grade, is excited to have won the Inclusion Specialist Rockstar Award. Faculty advisors, Bibi John, School Psychologist, and Amy Jacques, School Counselor, were both nominated for Rockstar Advisor for the second year in a row.
A unique approach to drama, Unified Theater seeks to bring together students of all abilities to help in making connections and encouraging freedom of expression through the theatric arts. With programs spanning nearly one hundred schools in seven states, Unified Theater strives to empower students to lead, be an avenue for the voices and opinions of people of all abilities, and to foster equality and acceptance.
Through a collaborative process, students conceive the production, draft the script, choose music, and work through all movement and acting sequences. All throughout the development, Maya Finkle worked to keep an eye on all matters of inclusion, from adding dialogue to the script to working with fellow actors. She says, “I walked around and noticed when people were being quiet and I would talk to them to see what they thought about what was going on or what they thought about the conversation that was going on.”
The chosen theme, “Nightmare Near Elm Street High” was an entertaining mash-up of 80s references with clever dialogue, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and lively dancing–in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Of her overall experience, Maya relayed that, “As far as during the show or preparation for the show there was also a lot of collaboration. We wrote the script all ourselves. To me, the process of writing the script was very collaborative.”
In their first year, 2017, “And, Action” was led by a small group of twenty students, but this year the team branched out to double the numbers of participation. Advisor Ms. Jacques explained that “With a larger group you have a larger sample of ideas about how to create a production around the theme. Ms. John and I had to get creative with how we went about allowing the process to unfold. We had the experience of a year behind us but that was with a much smaller group, things would have to happen. This group wanted more props then last year, and started out with a very complicated story line trying to accommodate every idea, and this group didn’t like to document as much as last year’s group so we had to come up with other ways to get the ideas into an actual script. So, this year evolved from a traditional script writing process to more of a jig saw setting.”
As far as the group mix goes, Ms. John explained that a lot of effort goes into strategizing for recruitment. “In our first year, we simply had kids sign up. This year we had students sign up, but also kicked it up a notch. We spoke to teachers, case managers, and service providers to see if they had any recommendations for potential members who may benefit from or enjoy our program. PPS and the MS sent out email blasts to all parents. We make sure to emphasize that we don’t only want actors in our club and that anyone can join. We have met individually with kids who may be apprehensive about joining and what they can contribute to the club. We have started mentioning our program during PPT meetings.” She went to say, “We have our club meetings start after the December break so that the kids have time to acclimate to the MS and we can work on reaching out to the kids, parents, and staff. For next year, we are working on having the staff at MHHS know more about our program and recommend kids to us and also have them talk to parents about our program.”
Principal Christine Baldelli has appreciated watching the program flourish, “Both this year and last I was able to watch new friendships form and students sitting together in lunch working to refine the play. I have also watched students coming together as a group fundraising and discussing ways to not only raise money for their show but to also donate to a worthy charity.”
Ms. John echoed her sentiments, reflecting that “Our kids make tremendous growth over the course of 4 months! It is so incredible to watch happen! They grow so much socially and emotionally. They learn to cooperate, negotiate, disagree respectfully, accept differing opinions. They become friends with one another–kids that are in different grades and classes that may not have gotten to know each other without this program. Most amazingly, their confidence grows when they see their hard work come to life.”
Maya Finkle’s mom, Terry Eagan, said she’s seen her daughter grow “…as a student and a leader. Unified Theater has really brought out the best in her…This program has also really helped Maya with her organization and planning skills. She has made great friends and great memories and can’t wait to start again next year!”
NFMS Unified students will be honored at a banquet in West Hartford later in June.
By Sarah Opdahl