The room buzzed with excitement as the sold out crowd settled in the Loreto Theater at the Sheen Center. Audience members scanned their programs of "As You Like It, A Musical Adaptation” - adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, performed by The High School Theater Department and members from the Grace community in May. "What does the ‘P’ next to her name stand for," the eager lower school student asked his mother while perusing the cast list of his program. "Parent" she replied, “there aren't just high school students in this show,” his mother explained, “it’s for everyone, that's why it's so special."
As if on cue, the lights dimmed, the music crescendoed and we are reminded, "All the world’s a stage."
Senior Penelope H. opened the show with a remarkable score adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous monologue, “All the Worlds a Stage.” The atmosphere in The Sheen Center was electric from that moment on. The opening number was comprised of students ranging in age from Early Childhood through High School, parents, teachers and alumni. The audience was awestruck from beginning to end, jumping to their feet in applause as the cast serenaded them during their curtain call. This was not your typical high school drama cast; this was not your typical high school musical.
The Grace Theatre Company took on a unique task this spring for their third show of the year and their annual musical. The musical adaptation was originally commissioned and produced by The Public Theater as a part of their Public Works project, with alumna Rebecca Naomi Jones ’95 starring as Roaslind, last summer. The head of the drama department, Sabrina Jacobs, saw the original production and immediately reached out to The Public to commission the show for our students.
“The high school has been closely connected to The Public Theater for the past five years, due in large part to the generous support and collaboration with its associate artistic director and Grace parent, Mandy Hackett,” Ms. Jacobs explained. “The Grace Theatre Company was one of the first ever to license and produce this musical after its premiere at the Delacorte Theatre last summer. This is a huge honor and a testament to the Public’s dedication to the notion that theater is for everyone, as well the commitment to share its wonderful gifts with the New York community.”
The spring production followed the Public Works model and opened auditions to the entire Grace community. Over 100 people auditioned for the show, far surpassing the expectations of both Ms. Jacob and associate director and musical director, Andrew Leonard. “This was a huge learning process for us,” Ms. Jacobs recalled, “especially in terms of managing expectations all around.” This community forum, while exciting also brought its challenges. Given the variety of the cast, the rehearsal process was much different from previous performances. As a whole, the cast rehearsed together only once a week, while musical numbers and smaller group rehearsals took place three to four times a week. For Ms. Jacobs, the most exciting part of this show was watching how the diverse cast worked together. “It has been really fun to see the younger students interact and look up to the high school actors, and some of the more seasoned adults set the example for professionalism for everyone in the room.”
“I have never cried from a student performance until now,” confessed dean of the Class of 2019 Brian Reilly. His sentiments mirrored that of the entire community. In the days following the show, faculty members could be heard throughout the school reveling in the high spirits of the performance. Students could be heard saying, “I’ll be friends with these people forever.” Never before has a drama production exemplified the spirit of the Grace community so well. The words Do not fear, All are welcome here, from the song “Under the Greenwood Tree” rings true not just for Arden or this show in particular, but for all of Grace Church School.
The energy surrounding the show continued for weeks following. Sentiments of praise and a call for more projects like this were on everyone’s mind. “I was just blown away,” Mandy Hackett remarked. “It’s such an incredible way to see the students engage with the beauty of Shakespeare. They showed such an extraordinary commitment, understanding and connection to the story and its deep meaning. And seeing the Grace community come together was so powerful. From teachers, parents, students of all ages – it shows us the power of the arts to bring us together and forge such strong bonds.”
Since the opening of the high school in 2012, connection across the grades has been paramount at Grace, and this was the first time members from across the community performed together in this way. Following praise from her peers, Ms. Jacobs replied, “To see junior Diana M. and fourth grader Thea S. cuddling onstage every night – that reaffirmed for me that Grace is a special community, and we are stronger when we come together as one.”