What is a ‘Spotlighter’?
In 2004 Norwell Middle School teachers, Deborah Anderson and Carolyn Petrell began a collaboration effort that has spanned cultures, continents and centuries. From the ancient Chinese dynasty to medieval France, the kings’ palace of Bangkok to the Sultan’s palace on an Arabian night. They have traveled the streets of New York City with an orphan named Annie and have braved the harsh conditions of the Oklahoma Territory. Together but not alone, they have traveled through a child’s imagination to the world of the Who’s to the real life teen struggles of high school.
All of these journey’s have been fueled with the talents and efforts of Norwell Middle School children in grades six, seven and eight, who range in age from eleven to thirteen. One hundred or so children who experience the uncertainty and fear of auditions, the disappointment of not getting a call back for a lead role or experience the excitement of call backs and final casting. Children huddled with their friends for support during the naming of leads, feeling the nervous energy in the room and the excitement that is mixed with disappointment as each lead role is announced.
For you see, in the world of a Spotlighter there can be only one Mulan, one Beast, one Troy or one one Ariel. But each child gathers their courage to stand up and audition for the chance at a lead role. And for each child, when it is not their name that is called for a lead, there is a decision to be made, to stay in a supporting role or leave the show. It is in that decision that a Spotlighter is created. It is in that decision that each and every Spotlighter joins in the journey of creativity, dedication and perseverance that results in the magical excellence of a NMS production.
It is our belief that it is a true testament to each child’s dedication to the outcome of a Spotlighter production that makes these shows described by audience members, ‘better than going to Boston’ and ‘WOW, we can’t believe that was a middle school production!’.
In the world of a Spotlighter, they will spend three and a half months preparing for opening night. Three and a half months, two hours a day, two to four days per week in rehearsals, not to mention time spent at home learning lines, learning songs, learning dance moves and all of this time for three performances. In the world of a Spotlighter there is no weekly ‘game’ to offset all of the practice. In the world of a Spotlighter, they, in the course of a weekend, will perform three times in front of over 400 audience members at each show and then it is over.
And in the world of a Spotlighter, these eleven, twelve and thirteen year old children stretch themselves far beyond their comfort zones to stand in front of the spotlight with peers, family, friends and strangers looking on and they captivate you with their story. What the audience member does not get the opportunity to witness is what happens during those three and half months preceding the show. Children who were once strangers are suddenly helping each other with learning lines, dance moves and homework. Social status, grade distinction and age becomes irrelevant as we all share a common space, a common goal, a common bond. It is that
common thread that weaves it way around each cast member and binds us all together.
When Petrell and Anderson began their directorial debut with The King and I, Jr, approximately sixty middle schoolers participated. This past season High School Musical, Jr. placed over one hundred students on stage. In the past eight seasons well over five hundred middle school students have graced the stage in one or more of the NMS Spotlighter productions. Additionally over 60 students have managed the behind the scenes tasks as crew members, not to mention the countless number of parents who support their star and who offer their time and talents. And each year nearly ever staff member at NMS steps forward to volunteer time and effort to assist in the production and quite a few grace us with their theatrical talents on stage as well.
Spotlighter does not remain isolated to the middle school. While rehearsals taking place at the middle school, the high school students under the guidance of teacher Mark Herman are busy creating the sets for the show. And during the final week of dress rehearsal the entire cast and crew descends upon the high school four hours every day leading up to opening night. All of this occurs through the cooperation of the middle and high school administrators, teachers, custodial staff and parents. The school play is truly an all school event that is a community effort and is successful because of all of the students, staff and parents dedicated and committed
to the show.
Director Deb Anderson says, “There are two things that I take away from every show: the way the kids interact – you’ll see students regardless of grade sitting together working on homework or rehearsing lines – and the way the school as a community comes together to support the show. If those two things didn’t happen, the show just wouldn’t work.”
Of course, the plays do more than just bring the school together; they also allow students to discover talents they never knew they had. Director Carolyn Petrell calls the plays “an excellent equalizer.” She says, “There are kids who may not excel in the classroom but just shine on stage and vice versa. This is a new venture for most kids; everyone comes in with no preconception of abilities.” Every year, Petrell is amazed by how these eleven, twelve and thirteen year-olds are able to develop these characters into something the audience believes in.
Today the Spotlighter program is lead by NMS teachers Carolyn Petrell and Cynthia Debenedictis.