A staging fit for a Lion King

The Lion King, one of musical theater’s grandest and most complicated productions, is not something that you’d expect from elementary school students who are the designers, actors, and dancers. But Jesus Moroles Expressive Arts Vanguard theater teacher, Jamie Nelson, and dance teacher, Brianna Miller, believed that this seemingly impossible task was possible. 

It was. The students staged and adapted the production this spring to great success and accolades from parents, team members and community. 

Nelson and Miller began collaborating two years ago when they presented the school’s first musical ever, Matilda, performed by fourth and fifth graders. 

The opportunity to present The Lion King—Nelson’s favorite musical—came about thanks to a grant. Nelson and Miller, who both say they love writing grants for their programs at the school, applied for the Disney Musicals in Schools initiative and got it. As part of the grant, fourth- and fifth-grade students worked with teaching artists from the AT&T Performing Arts Center. 

Last month, Moroles students, along with those of four other schools, shared their work as part of the Student Share Celebration for Disney Musicals in Schools at the Winspear Opera House, located in the downtown arts district. 

While both Nelson and Miller recognize that producing The Lion King with elementary school students was not something that most directors would tackle, they were up for the challenge. 

“We didn’t know any better that children shouldn’t do this work and I think it’s fabulous.The students have been rising to the challenge,” said Miller. 

“For us, it’s a little bit easier in a sense because we have such great administrative support,” said Nelson. “We teach separately, but then for the past few months we’ve been co-teaching, which we do whatever we’re getting ready for a musical. So we’re very fortunate in that sense.”

Both teachers agree that the students benefit from the co-teaching because when you are a professional dancer or actor, you work with the different directors, such as the theater director, choreographer, and music director during rehearsals. This model is one that you would find in the industry. 

The teachers knew what the Broadway version looked like, but thought of ways in which their students could present it on stage. Working together to find the movement of the characters, the costumes and all that the production entailed was a task that Miller and Nelson worked diligently on during school hours. 

The teachers called their production “budget friendly” as students were innovative and creative in making their costumes. Under the guidance of Miller and Nelson, the students made over 100 masks in six weeks. There was a cast of 60 students in the cast, many who played multiple roles. 

After Spring Break, students began to work on creating the masks and the costumes—the stagecraft and dance production aspects of the musical. 

Students used cardboard pieces and items they found in the recycling bin. For the bigger pieces, the teachers bought plywood and other supplies.

“So pretty much everything you see on stage has honestly been made by children,” said Miller.

“A lot of what you see is literally just spare cardboard that we’ve taken and we’ve shaped it. The students made them into giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceroses,” said Nelson. 

Using hula hoops, students were taught how to bend them and drill holes to be able to pull fabric across, and create a costume in the likeness of an animal. To catch a glimpse of what the costumes looked like, click here to see a video the school posted on their social media. 

One of the best parts of this process for Miller and Nelson has been helping students discover their talents in areas they wouldn’t have considered before.

”I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids that would never have studied dance, that signed up for theater,” said Miller. “But now all of a sudden they’re in a musical. And my colleague Ms Nelson has had the opportunity to work with kids that signed up for dance but didn’t necessarily sign up for theater. But now they have to learn to sing on stage.”

“To be able to have the freedom to work on a team to create something really beautiful like this with the colors, light, shapes and textures like has been a memorable experience not only for us, but for the students as well,” said Nelson. 

For more information about the Disney Musicals in Schools initiative, visit this link

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