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Middle Schoolers
Apply Their "Talents"
To Musical Production

"Our middle school play has taken on a life of its own," shares Jane Wagner. "It has become firmly ingrained in the culture of our school. It is a great fundraiser and a wonderful team builder that crosses many divides. It is also a lot of work, but well worth the time."


Like all of the school's productions, the large cast of "Babes in Toyland" at Bullard TALENT K-8 School was determined through a rigorous audition process. (Photo courtesy of Jane Wagner)

Each year, Bullard TALENT K-8 School in Fresno, California, puts on a middle school musical that is viewed by an audience of more than 4,000 people. The endeavor requires the cooperation of nearly all members of the school community. Wagner, a teacher and the visual and performing arts coordinator, has done 13 shows with Bullard students.

"I love Meredith Wilson's The Music Man. This is the quintessential musical. It has a great story, great music, and is just plain feel-good. I cry every time the band comes out at the end playing 76 Trombones," she told Education World. "What I especially like about this play and my two other favorites, Wonderland and Hee Haw Hayride, is that there is plenty of work for large casts."

Organizers of the show are committed to having large casts, with a minimum of 45 students and typically about 55 kids involved. Wagner finds it easy to make a student who has even the smallest role in these shows feel important, and she enjoys the variety of genres in the music, which keeps audience interest alive. Selecting the right play for middle school is probably the most critical decision that is made during production, Wagner believes.

"For me, the perfect show has a good variety of musical genres, has a potential for actively involving a number of students, and is within my range of resources in terms of costumes, space, sets, lighting, and talent," she explained. "It's really important to have a sense of your horses before you choose a show. For example, if I'm expecting predominantly girls, which is often the case in middle school, I'm probably not going to choose Mulan, which calls for a lot of boys."

Wagner also looks for less well-known scripts. By choosing something more obscure, she avoids comparisons to other recent or prominent productions. She does sometimes select more widely recognized stories, but she looks for those with a twist so the audience doesn't feel that it already knows the show before the curtain goes up.

The students' courage and commitment to the production continuously impresses Wagner. The audition process can be grueling and requires students to step outside of themselves and take big risks.

"Some students audition for me once and automatically see the results," she reported. "Others make two or three tries before they are cast, yet they continue to put themselves on the line to be part of this experience."

Once the students are cast, they must commit to the show and its process in many ways, Wagner adds. "Time is the obvious commitment expenditure, but committing to be the best lead, ensemble member, stage crew member, whatever, and own the show so that audiences can really enjoy the end result is a major gift of self."


Each cast gives roughly 14 scheduled performances, many for school groups. (Photo courtesy of Jane Wagner)

One student for whom the show made a lasting impact stands out in Wagner's memory. He was a child with the "whole package," a bright, talented, good-looking kid with a fantastic personality. Despite those characteristics, he had made choices in sixth and seventh grade that were setting him up for serious failures in the future. Cajoled into auditioning, he ultimately garnered a role that was a huge risk. The boy embraced it with such enthusiasm that he completely stole the show.

"I believe that the middle school play experience was the last stop before this young man made some choices that could have ruined his life. The experience allowed him to get back on track and make use of all of his abilities," recalled Wagner. "Today, so much emphasis is placed on underperforming or at-risk students that sometimes more capable students can get lost in the shuffle."

The student went on to a successful high school career and is currently in college and doing well. Wagner remains convinced that his experience with the middle school play altered the course of his life. Stories like his not only keep her going but encourage her to spread the word about the benefits of large group musical productions in schools. Community members are so invested in Bullard's annual production that many return to volunteer year after year, even after their own children have left the school.

"Don't be limited by what you think you know or don't know," Wagner advises. "The more you do this, the better you'll get at it. Every show I do, I try to add something new, whether it's a new program style, different microphones, a different style of set construction, just something to stretch me a little."

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