NBC recently announced the 50 schools that will receive their R.I.S.E. grant, giving $10,000 to school theatre departments around the country. Out of over 1,000 schools that applied, John Overton High School is one of only two schools from Tennessee to receive the grant, thanks to Theater Teacher, Gina Kelley. We sat down with Gina to discuss what makes Overton’s theatre department special and how they plan to use the money.
Q: Tell us a little about your theatre department. When did it start?
A: The theatre department has been a vital part of Overton for many years. I was hired six years ago to replace my friend and mentor Ralph Gabriel “Gabe”, retired wrestling hall of fame coach.
Q: How many students are involved?
A: When I was hired there were two theatre classes at the school, now we have two full time theatre teachers and two different tracks for Overton students to get involved within theatre! I lead the performance part of the program teaching Theatre Arts and Drama while directing the Advanced Acting and Musical Theatre classes in productions of plays and musicals. We produced 5 shows this year. Gary Schleimer leads the technical theatre program, teaching and directing our student “techies”. He teaches and guides them through the technical theatre process until show time when we boast entirely student run productions. Students manage the show, build sets, focus the lights and run lights and sound for all of our productions.
Q: What production are you currently working on?
A: We are currently working on Urinetown which opens next week and runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday
and Monday. We are excited to be participating in the Nashville Spotlight Awards with this show!
Q: To qualify for the grant, you had to submit an essay and video on how the community would rise from receiving the money. What were your key points?
A: Overton is the most diverse school in the state of Tennessee. We have students from over 40 countries enrolled in our school and over 60 languages are spoken in our hallways. We have learned that theatre is a unique tool in the development of literacy and now over 12% of our current student population is involved in a theatre class. Having said this, we share just one stage with a plethora of successful Overton programs and endeavors. We share the space with a concert band, a symphonic band, a wind ensemble and a Jazz band, 2 choirs and multiple important school functions such as student Academy meetings and class meetings. As we grow our theatre department we find that we do not have enough space for our acting classes to practice skill mastery of the Tennessee state standards on an actual stage or in a real performance space. Of course anyone who has ever performed or even seen live theatre knows that there is something very special about practicing and performing our art form on stage. We sought out the grant in an effort to give our students more consistent opportunities to practice their craft.
Q: What do you plan to do with the grant money?
A: We asked for the grant money so we can convert our theatre room (a typical classroom) into a fully functional black box theatre space with its’ own complete light board and lighting system, sound board and sound system, stage and seating area for practice and additional performance opportunities.
Q: What benefits do you see in your students from participating in TPAC Education programs?
A: TPAC, and specifically Cassie Lefavor, have been friends of Overton for many years. Last year we formalized our relationship into a community partnership. TPAC has generously provided our low-income students with opportunities to experience live professional theatre at a low cost, affordable prices, and sometimes free opportunities for the students to experience live, professional theatre. It is a Tennessee state standard that students see live theatre, but many of our students with jobs or sibling care family responsibilities would never have that opportunity. TPAC has also offered opportunities for students to tour a large theatrical venue, seeing the behind the scenes tools and equipment requirements to produce “the magic” on stage. TPAC has also been kind enough to allow and enable our theatrical friend, Ms. Lefavor, to come teach workshops directly to our students to kick off units of study.
Q: Why, in your opinion, are the arts an integral part of the education process?
A: Well, Victor Chuk said that “Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics” and I think we need society to change right now. We already know that statistically students who participate in the arts in school have higher graduation rates and higher scores on standardized tests. Students come to school for theatre, band or fine arts and then they stay to learn the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic). The arts give students an opportunity to discover who they are and to learn what it’s like to problem solve as a group (or society). Theatre helps students develop social emotional learning skills as it teaches empathy, which of course our society needs today. I am passionate about theatre because it teaches students to respect and value themselves and others. It helps students discover their own feelings and gives them the confidence to speak up in the world.
Q: What would you say to schools that are considering making budget cuts to their fine arts departments?
A: I’d say, “Are you crazy?! Look up the facts. Research the data on the documentable value of an arts education! And if you won’t listen to any of that, just ask a child why he or she actually wants to come to school. I promise it isn’t for the standardized tests.”
Overton High School’s theatre program only has room to grow. With this funding, the program can have
better facilities and classes for students. Things seem to be on the up and up for the Overton theatre department as they recently traveled to see Hamilton in St. Louis! The students were invited by the Gilder Lehrman Institute to travel to St. Louis and see the show for only $10.00 a seat on a grant from the Hamilton Education Foundation. 45 students created a song, rap, painting or poem based on the revolutionary war in order to participate.
TPAC is so proud of all the amazing work Overton High School does with arts education and we can’t wait to see where they go from here!