Schools nationwide celebrated March as the Educational Theatre Association’s “Theatre in Our Schools Month,” several middle and high schools in Northeast Denver raised the curtain on their spring musicals—some for the first time since 2019—to enthusiastic community support.
On stage, the middle school actors of McAuliffe International School in Park Hill were “finally set free to be themselves,” says Jen Carabetta, who directed this year’s musical with voice teacher Dawn Owens. The students delivered a rousing performance of the Broadway hit Newsies, which chronicles the true story of how a ragtag group of newsboys achieved their own measure of freedom.
“There’s freedom and joy in playing a role and experiencing the world in a new way,” says Carabetta. “That’s the beauty of live theater.”
The McAuliffe actors leaned into the freedom and joy, with a boisterous opening scene pulling the audience into New York City at the end of the 19th century. The musical recounts the 1899 Newspaper Strike: In two remarkable weeks in the history of American news consumption, the “newsies” of New York—orphans and immigrants who hawked newspapers for pennies in the streets—formed a union and successfully negotiated with wealthy newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. In period costumes, the students danced, joked and sang, and a few student gymnasts upped the ante with stage-wide tumbles and twirls.
Sixth grader Landon Streker, who played a “newsie” named Albert, says embodying a character was “like an escape,” adding, “you take on this whole new world and really try to be in it and feel your character’s feelings.” Likewise, Roby Thurmond, a seventh grader in Newsies, says, “Having this opportunity makes me feel free and happy all the time I’m doing it.” For Brooke Bentley, another sixth grader in the musical, “The ‘newsies’ are like heroes, standing up for themselves even when they’re children.”
At Northfield High School in Central Park, students explored a similarly inspirational topic with the production of The Prom, an award-winning musical comedy recently adapted by Netflix. Northfield theater director and teacher Hanan Al-Naqeeb notes, “This is a piece that is very relevant to our students. It’s about accepting yourself for who you are and accepting others for who they are as well.” The Prom showcases four fading Broadway actors and their attempts to assist a lesbian student who has been banned from bringing her girlfriend to the high school prom. “After the shooting at Club Q happened, it solidified the importance of this piece,” says Al-Naqeeb. “We talked about this in auditions, and we’ve spent 15 to 20 hours a week together as a cast, creating strong relationships and a safe space for everybody to have these conversations about acceptance and being able to share your authentic self.”
Al-Naqeeb believes live theater is essential to social activism. “I love the joy and the pride that students get from doing this work,” she says. “They’re finding their voices on stage and off.” Junior Liam Jarvis, who played Kevin in The Prom, says he hopes the musical “can change minds by immersing the audience directly into the story, giving a more in-depth view of the message than a movie can do.”
Watching The Prom take shape on stage was “such a good and great experience” for senior Ca’Shara Crisp, who plays “the parent” in the Northfield musical. She says, “I already come from the queer community as a member, so while coming into this some people had concerns, through people performing and hearing, they’ve come to see that it’s an amazingly positive show.”
Dozens of cast members from McAuliffe and Northfield emphasized that positive change starts, for them, with relating to a character. Junior Keegan Shouse, who played Trent Oliver in The Prom, comments, “When you’re performing, you’re part of that different world and part of the scene. You become a different person; I’m now Trent Oliver, and I’m in Indiana.”
Dawn Owens, who directed Newsies with Carabetta, considers the arts critical to students’ emotional health. “That need for expression in the arts is exactly why we wanted to bring this to McAuliffe,” she says. “It teaches them life lessons.”
Those life lessons include confidence in public speaking, plus a myriad of social-emotional tools. “Kids that do theater are kids who learn to give people a second chance,” Carabetta says. “Mishaps happen, someone forgets a line, and the show must go on. You cover for each other, and you are a team.”
The Prom student director Elliot Liu, a junior at Northfield, concurred: “Being part of live theater gives people a ton of empathy,” she says. “Stepping into others’ shoes is what acting is, then transmitting these stories to the world.”
As for public speaking, eighth grader Violet Manthey, who played a reporter in Newsies, says, “Being in theater has given me a lot more confidence. I had a presentation the other day in school and felt like I could stand up a little taller.”
Carabetta helped build the theater program at McAuliffe before moving to the drama department at Northfield, where she still teaches. She came back to direct Newsies as an all-school, extracurricular activity. “We welcomed anyone who wanted to give it a try,” Carabetta says. “It was beautiful how the cast came together in such a short time.”
“We saw what the pandemic did for the arts, and we wanted to do something to reinvigorate drama amongst youngsters,” adds Owens.
Eighth grader Amaria Bisibo, who played a dancer in Newsies, says joining the production “helped me come out of my shell.”
Overall, the middle and high school students agreed that the highlight of live theater is the camaraderie. Sixth grader Aubrey Ringgenberg says, “I love that I am able to make friends with so many people in different grades who are cool and into the same thing that I am.” Quynh MacKenzie, a senior who played one of the Broadway stars in The Prom, says, “This year we all have a new appreciation for theater—for the connections we’re making with one another and the audience and the uniqueness of storytelling in person.”
Just before curtain call on the opening night of Newsies, eighth grader Soren Pedersen encapsulated the feelings of many of his fellow actors, declaring, “When we’re up there, I live for the stage.”