Cast members and parents dried their eyes, flowers were presented and applause echoed through Tuttle Hall as Middle School drama students took final bows at the end of the spring performance of In the Air. “I was blown away by the performances but also by the reaction of the audience,” drama teacher Susan Sterman-Jones reflected, “Everyone seemed very moved.”
The evening was the culmination of an extraordinary year-long process in which the drama department commissioned a new Middle School play. Students had the rare opportunity to help develop and perform in a new musical that would have its premiere at Grace Church School. “Over the years, I’ve found it difficult to find a really well-written, sophisticated play that’s also appropriate for Middle School students,” Sterman-Jones explains, “something not too grown up but not too immature either.” She reached out to Drama Desk award-winning playwright Rob Ackerman, whom she had met through Grace English teacher Lucie Aidinoff, hoping that he would be interested in creating a play for her students. She wrote:
“I want a play with music, not a fully orchestrated giant musical, but a play with some beautiful ballads that express the inner journeys of the characters, and some up-tempo, rocky group numbers, too. My middle school students are pretty sophisticated, so I'd like this piece to be profoundly meaningful, with some good comic relief; I want it to tell a wonderful story that will resonate with the audience. I want there to be gay character(s) who are not victims, but people struggling with finding their authentic selves.
To her surprise and despite his doubts, Mr. Ackerman agreed. Ackerman describes his experience with the process:
I’d written plays for students, including commissions for young actors at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, with lots of characters of various genders, races and sexual orientations. Yet somehow the idea of creating a fully liberated gay protagonist felt daunting. My wife and I discussed the pros and cons and I was hesitant… until I started to write.
This story took off. The point of departure was my own play, Icarus of Ohio, about a boy and girl learning to fly, staged by Fritz Ertl at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2008. David McCullough's new book, The Wright Brothers, added fresh insight and Susan provided encouragement and direction, allowing historical figures to come to life, mentors to transform, and main characters to find their voices.
Composer Sam Forman and lyricist Eli Bolin added the magic of a Rogers and Hammerstein method: Sam crafted lyrics to a tune in his head, sent words to Eli without naming the tune, and trusted his collaborator to come up with something original. Gorgeous songs arrived. Susan held auditions. Writers attended the first reading. Young actors performed their scenes; music director David Shenton played the newly-minted score; Eli sang the numbers for the kids, and the show seemed to beg for more melodies. I pruned dialogue, Sam and Eli wrote in a flurry; Dan Pardo sped through notations, and now here we are, like Jay and Maggie [from the play], up and flying, despite whatever shouts or doubts surround us. This is fun, scary and proof of a lesson we have to learn again and again: artistic risks are almost always worth taking.
I saw all three performances and thought that what these kids did was nothing short of remarkable. Their focus and commitment to the story and music and their own craft was so moving that some of us may have shed a tear or two or several. I sure did. This is a big emotional button for me, kids overcoming their fears and limitations. Does me in every time. And that's what this show is about. It is what the GCS kids did, again and again in their performances. I was proud of those students and what each of them achieved and also deeply proud of Susan
and every single person who contributed to those beautiful performances. The whole production was transcendently beautiful. If a stranger had just walked in off the street and seen those performances, I believe he, she or they would have been similarly moved.
How did I feel? Elated. That's the word that comes to mind. Relieved, then elated.
Lastly, let me add that it took courage for Head of School, George Davison, to trust his drama teacher to commission a custom-made new work. I've asked around. Nobody's ever heard of anything like this. It's not done. You did it.
My hat is off to the whole GCS community.
In the Air consisted of an intimate cast of 23 students in Grades 6-8 who were eager to take on a creative challenge. “There is nothing more beautiful than watching the transformative influence of theater take effect on my actors.” Mrs. Sterman-Jones expressed. “This musical has not only challenged them creatively but has also provided a space for self-reflection and personal growth.”