Middle School Theater Makes Its Mark

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.

Nick Ribolla (Jimmy Smith) and Julia Mandelbaum (Millie), in Bedford Acting Group's "Thoroughly Modern Millie." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Nick Ribolla (Jimmy Smith) and Julia Mandelbaum (Millie), in Bedford Acting Group’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

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.

Philip Cadoux, Jimmy Ray Stagg and Steven Xu as the 3 Chinese characters in "Millie." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Philip Cadoux, Jimmy Ray Stagg and Steven Xu as the 3 Chinese characters in “Millie.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“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.”

High production values marked Coleytown's "Fiddler on the Roof."

Everett Sussman and Samantha Chachra in Coleytown’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Photo/Failla)

“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.”

"Peter Pan" wowed Coleytown Middle School audiences.

Remy Leifer as Smee, and Jacob Leaf as Captain Hook, in Coleytown Middle School’s “Peter Pan.” (Photos/Failla)

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.)

3 responses to “Middle School Theater Makes Its Mark

  1. I can’t say enough good things about the theater program at Bedford. It became the very heart of my daughter’s experience there, and as a result, she grew so much in her self-confidence, friendships, presentation abilities, singing, sense of humor, and teamwork skills. To see the productions – and I’ve seen all the Bedford and the Staples productions in my years here in Westport – is to see a school coming together in an extraordinary and inspiring way. The program gives back to the community, too, not just through the gift of theater, but through donations to local charities, often in line with the messages within the plays. How’s that for character education? To the theater teachers, staff, volunteers, families, and students, I say – Bravo!

  2. So true! When I was at Colleytown Jr. High I went to see the Staples Players’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was blown away by the sophistication of it and the superb acting and staging. Later that year I went to a concert featuring the Choir and Orchestra and I was hooked! I could not wait to get to high school so I could get into such high quality performing arts.
    What a gift Westport has given it’s students with the expansion of these programs to the middle schools and the funding for high quality teachers and production costs. Westport has always been about nuturing and providing opportunity for its children. BRAVO!

  3. Westport’s theater is amazing! And we must not overlook the quieter, in-school Drama/Presentation classes that are part of the regular curriculum. Unfortunately the recent proposals to cut that course from the 8th grade will impact the very kids who wouldn’t normally go out and look for the bigger theater experience. Drama/Presentation class teaches interpersonal skills so lacking in today’s techie world – to kids who are NOT necessarily actors/singers/dancers – and who therefore benefit all the more from the experience.