By Bridgett Hernandez
Fifth-grade students at Deer Ridge Elementary School recently transformed their cafeteria into the African savanna for the production of the Lion King.
The fifth-grade spring musical is a tradition at Deer Ridge, and music teacher and director Sue Caudill felt this class was up for a challenge.
“This is a very uniquely talented group of students. That’s why we thought this year was the year to undertake a show such as the Lion King,” she said.
Preparation for two nights of performances in March started after the students came back from winter break.
About 90 students participated in the student-led production, both on stage and behind the scenes. Caudill said students formed a theatre company, taking the lion’s share of responsibility for the show’s success. The adults – teachers, parents and other volunteers – took on the role of collaborators.
“It was a powerful experience that provided them with an immersed and engaged and purposeful way of learning problem-solving, cooperation, teamwork and responsibility,” she said.
Student Trent George, who played Mufasa and assisted in directing, said that it was a team effort.
“It wasn’t like, ‘You go here and you go there.’ We all worked together,” he said.
Student Molly Bartel, who played a lioness, was also the rehearsal manager. She was tasked with keeping her fellow students on track throughout the production.
“[Molly] also kept me on track as a director,” Caudill said. “She would text and email me and say, ‘Mrs. Caudill, don’t forget today you’re meeting with so-and-so at noon, and by the way don’t forget to bring this with you. And by the way, don’t you think we should rehearse that scene again?’ She could run her own company now!”
A team effort
Students rehearsed before, after and, sometimes, during school in preparation for two nights of performances. Parent, grandparents and other volunteers along with students put in hours on evenings and weekends working on the set, which was designed by Bonnie McCray.
Jill Bontrager, a retired art teacher, designed and created the actors’ masks from poster board.
When asked about the production’s budget, Caudill and her students laugh.
“That’s a little nebulous,” she said. “The school supported us as much as they could and a lot of donations came in, including people who contributed anonymously.”
The result was a Broadway-worthy performance. While the show’s quality wowed audiences, the real magic happened in the three months before students took the stage, Caudill said.
It was a bonding experience for students as well as the adults who worked on the show.
“We became a family. Without each other, we couldn’t have made this possible. We all grew closer together whether we were best friends when we started or barely knew each other’s first name,” said student Zach Prendergast, who played Scar.
Several students said the experience allowed them to explore parts of themselves that they didn’t know they had. Student athlete Brady Jones said he discovered his dramatic side. He played Zazu and does an uncanny impression of the blue cartoon bird.
The students also developed an appreciation for their classmates’ talents. At auditions in January, student Yousef Hamed, who played the older Simba, was surprised to find out so many of his classmates could act.
“I was really proud of our whole fifth grade and everybody who helped us because we were awesome,” he said.
The students said they are grateful for all the adults who provided them with this opportunity and supported them every step of the way. They would like to give a special thanks to their music teacher and director Mrs. Caudill; fifth-grade teachers Sara Jones, Courtney Wennemar and Kari George; program coordinator Gretchen Carrel and all the parents, grandparents and others who volunteered; Julie Potter, who designed the costumes; and Sam Davis, who volunteered his artistic skills.