It started last year with some of the drama kids. You know that commercial for the insurance company with the catchy little jingle, "We are Farmers, bum bum dum bum, bum bum bum"? Well one of my actors, who played the Genie our production of Aladdin JR last year, changed it to "We are Thespians, bum bum dum dum bum bum bum" and we all put our hands together in a circle and unite in our love for all things drama while singing it, then end by flinging out hands up with a wooooooo! Everyone laughs and enjoys that moment of being part of a group, part of a team, part of something worth being part of. We relish the safety and joy of belonging to our little world.
This year, the PA State Thespian Conference was not local like it was for us last year, so we packed our bags and took ten lucky drama kids and headed out for two nights and three days with close to 1,000 other theatre arts students from across the state. Yes, I actually spent that much time with my darling idiots and lived to tell the tale. And yes, they know I call them my darling idiots - they actually love that moniker and take great pride in it. I think they're even trying to figure how to work it into this year's Tshirt!
How to describe what a three day drama conference is like? Perhaps you realize that drama kids are kind of a unique group. They are not exactly the shy, quiet type. (Although some of them actually are, until they get up on the stage and take on their character's persona.) They come to the conference exuberantly expecting to not just meet other students like themselves, but in being with them, having the freedom and joy of expressing themselves without any fear of criticism or harassment. They wear their fun, colorful outfits, hats and accessories and worry not about the teenage fashion police, all still back home in their look alike mall clothes. They break out into song and dance in the corners and hallways of the host school and no one shushes them. They embrace each other with welcome warmth and appreciation for their kindred spirits. Safety. Joy. Belonging. Our theatre world.
In a group of mostly high school students, my middle schoolers were notably in awe. Only two of them had been to last year's conference, so this was indeed an exciting new adventure, especially for those who need to have their ducks in a row. It was a growing, stretching and wonderful time for all of us. We watched five full stage productions by other attending schools as well as several one acts and showcases, which were lineups of a variety show style - productions numbers from musicals, serious monologues and humorous comedy sketches. Everyone received thunderous applause simply for taking the stage - for this group knows exactly what that feels like - and the most superior performances were capped with standing ovations. The actors, the stage crews, the 'techies', the costumers, and the directors were all equally lauded, for again, this group gets that it's not just about the leading man or lady.
Several of the productions that were performed were absolutely stellar. It was hard to believe that some of the talent on that stage was coming from mere high school students. My budding performers watched wide eyed, soaking it all up and aspiring to attain that level of performance some day. And it did my director's heart good when some of them would say, "Hey, Mrs. Shellenberger, you know how you tell us to . . . . that's what they were doing and it made it so good!" : )
I know it sounds like a recipe for insanity to spend that much time with kids, but we truly had an amazing time together. The kids we took to the conference are really great, well behaved kids and I loved seeing them experience their first overnight conference. Plus some of my former students were there with the high school group and it was a joy to get to hug them and catch up with them and see how they're learning and growing.
A few of the productions tackled some pretty serious topics and I had some concerns about whether those shows would be appropriate for middle school students. Their parents had entrusted me with their babies, some of them going away overnight without family members for the first time. But we stayed for all of the performances and I think it was really good we did. This world these kids are growing up in is not the world I grew up in - even in the 60's and 70's with all the tumult those eras brought to idyllic baby boomer families.
Back in our hotel, we gathered in one of the girls' rooms (the boys had their own space down the hall and there was no visiting each others' rooms, even with chaperones present) and I sprawled on the bed with them and listened to their responses to shows about drug use and alcoholism and suicide and cutting and AIDS. While my heart was desperately wishing that at this age, they could still just be enjoying listening to music and giggling over crushes, I was encouraged to hear that they were working on strategies for simple matters like choosing to not curse, even though lots of kids around them in school do or because it was part of the language of some of the shows. The infidelity of the characters in the fairy tale based 'Into the Woods' bothered them, rather than leading them to think it was an acceptable choice. Their hearts were broken for the characters who were so hopeless that turning to drugs or alcohol or cutting or suicide seemed their only choice. For some, it may have given them a greater understanding of why some of their peers act or choose what they do, or compassion for what struggles may drive them to their decisions or choices. The power of live theatre had shot its arrow straight to their hearts and while yes, it was depressing in ways, the pain and consequences of some choices was also driven home in a memorable way. My hope and prayer is that their earnest goals to resist the lure of all the temptations around them can be maintained throughout their teen and adult years!
While I know that several of my kids come from Christian families and all are trying to make good choices because of the values they've been taught, as a public school employee I'm not really at liberty to bring the hope we can have in God into the picture during our discussions. And yet, my response during those performances dealing with some of the dark and difficult issues of our time was "Oh, my, how we need Jesus!" It was obvious from several of the shows, that everyone both on the stage and in the audience, was feeling the reality of the anguish of darkness and the quest for filling that void, finding an answer, discovering a strategy for coping . . . or for recovering from not coping. And my heart broke for our broken world.
Life is hard, no matter what age or season we find yourselves in. It's one of the reasons Christmas can be such a welcomed season, for it is rich with joy and hope in a dark and trying day. We fill our December days with our favorite music and foods and decorations and movies and activities. It can be a wonderful celebration or it can be a desperate attempt to fill the void. As we enter the Advent season, my prayer is that something of this season will bring hope to your heart. It only takes watching one TV show, one Hallmark movie, one theatre performance . . . . one look at our checkbook, one conversation with a neighbor or friend, one look into another's eyes to remember that we all have fears, struggles, worries, temptations and darkness that threaten to take our focus off the bottom line of this season. My prayer is that each one of us will open our hearts to whatever it is God is trying to say to us, to however He is trying to remind us of the amazingly, overwhelmingly great love that sent His Son to us. To our world. To each and every one of us.
So we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt, the safety and joy of belonging. To Him. The King of Kings.
No matter what darkness we face.
We need Jesus. Bum bum dum dum bum bum bum.