19 I n c i t e /I ns i ght Some shows just have that special magic to help create that learning environment. “The Lion King, Jr.” is a story of challenges conquered and fears overcome. Other important themes include environmental responsibility, of teamwork, and perseverance. Its content is curricularly relatable to the iconic play “Hamlet” and its plot is compelling to younger and older people alike. While these themes were performed on stage, they were also enacted behind the scenes in producing the play. Educators can differentiate expectations based on the creative potential for students. Younger students have redefined expectations, but it is up to the creative educator to keep the expectations proportional in their level of difficulty. That is to say, the work that an elementary school theatre student is not less- challenging than the work of an older student, it is simply more designed to their educational needs as a developing student and artist. Let’s look at two examples: 2012: St. Mary’s school in Aliso Viejo CA performed its largest production yet. ”The Lion King, Jr.” included 120 students–a full quarter of the Grade 8 graduating class participated. 2016: A production of “The Lion King: KIDS” at Lusher Charter School in New Orleans, the Grade 4 Theatre curriculum was designed from focusing on William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to “Hamlet”–to compliment the “Lion King” student production and enhance the student’s relational thematic understanding. As with every production, even when two different groups do 20 W i n te r 201 8 In c it e / In sig h t W int e r 2 018 The connection of life is not only a narrative theme in “The Lion King” it is production reality iterated in the educational process. Students connect the stage production to their own experiences in viewing the animated film, they are given the opportunity to make connections to the deeper historical theatrical canon, and they coordinate the narrative experience of the piece with their own distinct experiences in producing the musical for their peers and family. ? the same show, they will have their own unique takeaways and experiences. At St. Mary’s school, while some were returning students from prior productions, many had never stepped foot on stage before. However, at the end of the rehearsal process, the children came together to create an incredible production. What do we make of both this enduring dedication by veteran performers, and the newcomer’s willingness to take risks? It starts, and ends, with the students at the center of each experience. Regardless of where the students were in their artistry, by meeting each student at their level, it created a welcome environment for collaboration. This also gave the returning performers the opportunity to learn leadership skills, as the newest members of the ensemble looked to them as models of the culture and expectations. As much as we adults try to be the perfect examples, sometimes kids just learn the most from each other. At Lusher, the critical thinking and engagement students deployed to relate the plot of “Hamlet” to its adaptation in “The Lion King” cognitively and creatively engaged the students to: ? Rethink the familiar–utilizing their common expertise in the “Lion King” story, students repurposed knowledge and references they already contained to connect it to Shakespeare’s work; ? Witness the adaptation chain from Shakespeare’s tale to animated film to reinterpreted stage production; ? And make connections between the tale and the culturally-based reinterpretation through live performance that harkens ritual. So what then are they key takeaways of the show from both productions? ? ? Collaboration: A theatre program can be entirely student- driven if the teacher or director is willing to take a risk and cultivate more trust. From inception to final curtain, students are at the center of the creative process, taking full ownership of the production. They are the leaders and decision-makers, from set design to stage management to the actual performance. They mentor, inspire and push each other. Their power over the process fuels innovation. Creativity flows from their responsibilities. And a shared goal inspires compassionate collaboration and expression. Problem Solving: When they encounter challenges—and they do—students are responsible for finding solutions. A large production, such as a musical, may require the students to design and construct hundreds of costumes and props, as well as choreograph five different ensembles. Students will need to address traffic flow issues, staging transitions, and coordinating all the moving pieces onstage and backstage. ? Teamwork: Every production, no mat ter the size, presents new problems to solve, requiring creativity, innovation and advanced skill sets. The obstacles students face mirror what they will experience in the future, both in higher education and in the workforce. Teamwork requires discovering each student’s strengths and experience levels, and managing many personalities. Challenges become successes when the team works toward a common goal with the success of the group at heart. ? Transferable Skills: STEAM and Design Thinking are principles that can be applied just as easily on stage as in a Science lab or Math class. As Prek-8 teachers, we encourage students to find solutions by engaging empathy with experimentation. This method reflects the hallmarks of what we do as theatre educators, connecting subject areas with inquiry-based, hands-on learning while developing strong social-emotional skills. Despite its commercialism, “The Lion King” continues to represent a substantial artistic achievement to the broad American culture. Even the youngest students in the K-8 grades are able to grapple with the plays narrative message and production realities. Just as the characters in “The Lion King” transition from innocence to experience in the awe of the cylicalness of life, so are theatre students when given the powerful opportunity to engage fully in theatrical work. Student-driven productions with accessible and exciting material allows for students to create their own culture of theatrical self- sufficiency and, indeed, legacy in an age of apps, screens, and pixels. Indeed, if life is a circle, so is art. MAREN OOM GALARPE is Director of the Arts at St. Mary’s School in Aliso Viejo, CA. She is also the co-chair of AATE’s PreK-8 Network. ALEX ATES contributed to this article. He is also the co-chair of AATE’s PreK-8 Network.