ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Disney Partners with NJPAC to Bring Theater Education to Under-Resourced Schools

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

You wouldn’t know it from his stage presence, but this production of “The Lion King KIDS” is fifth-grader Jordan Armour’s first real foray into musical theater performance.

“At first I wasn’t really thinking about musical theater,” said Armour, “but it really just shot up because I never knew I was going to be good at it.”

Armour is one of over 200 third- through fifth-graders who performed an excerpt from their school musical at NJPAC this week as part of the Disney Musicals in Schools program.

“Disney Musicals in Schools was developed to create lasting musical theater programs in under-resourced schools,” said Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of Education and Outreach at Disney Theatrical Group.

Mitchell said this is the first year the program has been brought to New Jersey. Five elementary schools were selected out of a pool of about 20.

“This year, the goal of the program is to give the classroom teachers the professional development they need to be able to continue this work in the future,” Mitchell explained.

She said participating schools get performance rights, scripts, CDs and in-school support from NJPAC teaching artists, all completely for free.

“Then next year,” said Mitchell, “those classroom teachers will receive another free license and show kit to a Disney show of their choice and they’ll continue, with just a little bit less professional development, on their own.”

Since each of these fledgling theater programs will need to self-sustain, the school teachers in charge have just as much to learn as the kids. Special education teacher at Luis Munoz Marin School for Social Justice Ashley Jiles acts as stage manager for her school’s production.

“There’s a lot to a production that I didn’t know about that I’m learning, and it’s a lot of work,” said Jiles.

But it’s been well worth it. Jiles said this is the most confident she’s seen these students…ever.

“Well, they just started to believe in themselves and that they can do anything they set their minds to,” Jiles said. “It was a big project for them, and I’m telling you, these kids nailed it.”

Jiles and fellow educators cited the experience as a way to teach kids how to work in a group, follow directions and develop reading comprehension skills, among other things. The program is an after-school activity, so only those who are really interested participate. And it’s clear, students are taking it seriously.

“You have to feel in the character. You have to be him. You have to rule the place,” said fifth-grader at Luis Munoz Marin School for Social Justice Shayla Santiago.

“If you don’t know your character, you can’t perform like him,” explained Armour. “You’re not acting like him, you are him at this moment.”

Kids from the five participating schools performed for each other in the “Student Share Celebration” at NJPAC — giving them the opportunity to see each other’s work on a big, professional stage and spread school spirit.