Recently, Nick Ribolla acted, sang and danced his way to audiences’ hearts as Jimmy Smith, in Staples Player’s superb production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” earlier this month.
Nick is only a sophomore. But he’d already played that role before, when Bedford Middle School presented “Millie.” Other “Millie” veterans from Bedford include Amanda Horowitz, Maddy Rozynek, Claire Smith, Emily Ressler, Nick Massoud, Joe Badion, Josh Popkin, Kelly Gore, Caroline Didelot, Will Haskell, Caroline Rossi, Sam Adelmann, Christian Melhuish, and Emma Ruchefsky.
Players wow Westport with their professional-quality shows. But the incredibly talented casts — and the equally strong technical crew, working behind the scenes — do not show up in 9th grade as novices.
They’re exposed to theater at Bedford and Coleytown. For many youngsters, middle school is where a lifelong passion begins.
Bedford Acting Group is run by director/presentation skills teacher Karen McCormick, assistant director Ryan O’Neill and producer Marge French.
All interested students are accepted. That makes for an enormous cast — the current show, “Guys and Dolls,” has 90 7th and 8th graders, with dozens more working on tech — but, French says, “it’s worth it. In middle school, kids should explore many different activities and interests. Like sports, this is a great way to learn teamwork.”
Every fall, Bedford’s fall musical is open to 7th and 8th graders. In the spring, there’s a straight play for 6th graders. In between, there’s a drama workshop for all students who want more theater.
“This is not a ‘middle school show,'” French emphasizes. “We have professional sound, lighting and costumes. We hold the kids to very high standards. This is a great steppingstone to Staples Players.”
So is Coleytown Company. Started 18 years ago by Ben Frimmer, the schedule is the opposite of Bedford. Fall brings a 6th grade no-costume, no-set, open-to-all show (this year’s is Disney’s “Aristocats Kids”), serving as an introduction to theater.
The spring production — which begins in December — is an all-school musical. There are auditions, but between the large cast and tech crew, 100 or more youngsters are involved. This year’s show is “Shrek.”
“We work on middle school ideals,” Frimmer says. “It’s all about building self-esteem, feeling part of something, learning a skill, and putting theater together.”
The director adds, “We set the bar high. We have very high production values. We love the kids, and we push them. ”
Frimmer always looks for unique angles. For “Annie,” Coleytown used the actual Broadway dog.
He points with pride to the “Wish Circle,” the moment when every cast and crew member gathers in his room to share insights on what the theater experience means to them.
“No one ever says, ‘I’m going to be an actor,'” Frimmer notes. “They talk about building friendships, and forming bonds. As an educator, for me that’s what it’s all about.”
David Roth — the Staples Players director who welcomes those experienced actors and tech crew members to high school — praises the middle school programs.
“They’re terrific,” he says. “Kids come into 9th grade with experience and knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have. So we start here at an amazing level.”
Roth notes the “symbiotic relationship” between the middle schools, and Staples. “Kids get excited seeing our shows. They bring that excitement back to their middle school productions. And because they’re so excited, they’re very well prepared when they get here.
“Westport has a 7-year theater program. Staples is a continuation of middle school. And middle school is vital to our quality.”
(For information on Bedford’s “Guys and Dolls” — presented December 6, 7 and 8 — click here.)