With spring here at last, drama clubs and theater departments at schools around the country are gearing up to put on plays.
Jewish day schools in the Baltimore area are following suit. Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s middle schoolers recently held several performances of “The Lion King Jr.,” and March 26 will see a production of “Annie Jr.” at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation by the students of Ohr Chadash Academy’s Theatrical Society. February saw Krieger Schechter Day School putting on a Hebrew-language version of “West Side Story.”
The plays and musicals put on by Jewish day schools do not only serve to offer entertainment. They also help students feel more involved in their school. Whether it is through acting, painting sets or operating the stage lights, participating in theater programs can foster an appreciation for art and improve students’ social skills.
“I’m a huge advocate of students in the arts,” said Diane Smith, the director of Beth Tfiloh’s creative arts department. “I myself am a product of what theater can do for people. When I was in high school, I was a wallflower. I was very shy, very withdrawn. … I started doing theater backstage as a theater technician and started to gain confidence that way.
“I know what the arts can do for students,” she added. “I see them grow so much and gain confidence. It gives them responsibility and a huge sense of achievement when the show is over.”
Organizing student-led plays are a labor of love for the theater departments at Jewish day schools, from Beth Tfiloh’s multiple plays per year among its middle and high schoolers to the once-a-year performances held at Ohr Chadash Academy and Krieger Schechter Day School. Even deciding what plays to put on each year can be a challenge due to the difficulty of obtaining rights for certain shows and the question of how appropriate they are for student performers and audiences.
“We have to be careful when choosing our shows to make sure their themes align with our school’s values, and that we can work within their framework of the show to do that,” explained Rachel Shar, the play director and first grade teacher at Ohr Chadash. “Some of the themes we like to explore are friendship and courage. … We prefer not to do romantic shows.”
Smith added that for the past five years, she has tried to get the rights for “Fiddler on the Roof” for the Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre, which she is also involved with, but with no luck due to the fact that there is currently a touring version of the musical.
In addition to helping quieter students come out of their shell, Shar adds that participating in plays helps to foster friendships between students in different grades. The Ohr Chadash Academy Theatrical Society is open to students in third through eighth grades, putting them all on the same level.
“It’s a unique experience for the kids to get to bond with and create relationships with people from across the Ohr Chadash community,” she said. “We become a family, and it’s so nice when a third grader [from the theater program] sees a seventh grader in the hallway and gives them a high-five. It’s really special.”
Krieger Schechter Day School has been putting on performances entirely in Hebrew for the past 30 years, allowing its students to practice their Hebrew language skills along with their acting skills.
“Speaking onstage in Hebrew helps motivate students to learn and explore the language,” explained Lilach Arie, KSDS’s kindergarten through eighth grade Hebrew coordinator. She works with musical director Erika Schon, who teaches the musical numbers in the school’s shows. “It helps them feel connected to it. … It gives them the opportunity to be creative, to shine and to show their talents.”
For the last two years, KSDS worked with an Israeli Tnu’at Tarbut (culture movement) organization to bring its plays to life. They sent director Ofir Ben-Ari, a Hebrew native speaker who helped the students to better connect to the language. Ben-Ari recently returned to Israel following “West Side Story.”
Students more involved behind the scenes are also able to get a more hands-on experience with the technical aspects of theater, such as creating costumes and working the stage lights.
Beth Tfiloh’s stage crew is responsible for building the set pieces for their performances with adult supervision, and a selection of one-act plays performed by their high school students often includes short plays written by students themselves.
“I tell my cast and crew that everyone in the show is like a chain,” Smith said. “Everyone’s a link in the chain, and if you’re missing one link, the chain doesn’t work. We all have to work together and depend on each other for a show to work.”
“Even students who are not sure if they are ‘theater people’ will find their talent onstage, and it helps them to feel that they’re more of a part of the class,” Arie added. “I feel like they find themselves during the process. We care so much about our students learning Hebrew, and we want them to be able to show what they have learned.”