I’ve never seen Vintage High School’s production of “Les Misérables,” which opened last Thursday.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been at every performance. As the pianist in Concert Choir, the class, which is composed of the 50-plus student cast of the musical, I’ve heard Les Mis sung hundreds of times. I can honestly say I’ve played every note of the show so many times I’ve lost count.
But in the orchestra pit below stage level, the view isn’t very good. During a show, most of the acting takes place out of my line of sight, although I see teenagers’ feet clad in identical black dance shoes and the girls’ long swishing skirt hems. One exciting night, I got hit in the head by a flying (fortunately lightweight) prop that went awry. But I’ve never actually seen the show. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
As teachers, we struggle daily with the challenges of imparting knowledge to our students. Sometimes the teaching process just isn’t very exciting. Pounding in the notes, lyrics, stage blocking and choreography can be exhausting for the kids. But day after day, they have come back and taken instruction humbly despite the pressure implied — that we teachers have a show to put on.
Now it’s our turn to be humbled by our students. As they begin rehearsing onstage, the students begin to exhibit quiet (actually, not-so-quiet) determination making it clear that they — not us — have a show to put on.
With every rehearsal, they get smarter and more knowledgeable. They begin working out onstage traffic jams and help each other with choreography, props, costumes, and set changes. They make friends with kids they didn’t know before. They haul boxes of programs, pull furniture and sets out of storage, display posters around town, learn how to fight, fall, and die onstage, how to hang up a costume neatly at the end of a show and how to sing fearlessly in front of hundreds of people. That’s when I realize that it doesn’t matter if I can see the show because it’s become their show.
One of the most exciting practices in education involves the concept of student “agency” — students empowered to be in charge of their learning. Although there are many adults facilitating this musical — from the music and staging directors to the makeup and hair artists to the choreographers — not one of us is onstage with the kids. The students are the show, and they are well aware of the fact that none of us can jump up and bail them out. The core education values of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking are evident from the first strains of the overture to the closing bows.
The final piece of the puzzle in a performing art is adding the audience. It is so fulfilling for the students to hear the applause and reactions from people seeing the show. Although Les Mis has many moments that move people to tears, our audiences ultimately have been very happy. One audience member communicated afterward, “The first moment the entire cast came onstage to sing, I had a rush of emotion. This is what high school kids should be spending their time doing.”
The thrill that has come after every performance has been immensely gratifying to the students and perhaps, a joyful moment for the audience and cast to share equally.
Les Misérables runs for 5 more performances, from Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. through Sunday, March 11 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at www.vhschoirs.com.
I won’t get to see the show. But I hope you do.