Theatre Arts wasn’t on the drawing board for Signal Mountain Middle High School when it was designed, but the original lecture hall has been used more for rehearsals and live productions than it has for meetings since the school opened its doors in the fall of 2008.
Theatre Arts was added when some local theatre supporters easily convinced Eddie Gravitte and Janet Brodsky, the school’s first principal and International Baccalaureate director, that the program was needed at the new school.
After obtaining approvals, Gravitte approached John Lennon, an old friend who was teaching theatre and coaching wrestling at Notre Dame High School, and convinced him to come to Signal Mountain to lead a new Theatre Arts program (and coach wrestling), starting in the fall of 2009.
Julie Daniel and Snoda Hendricks completed paperwork to organize a Theatre Arts Boosters group, commonly known as TAB at SMMHS. Daniel was the first president, assisted by Hendricks, who didn’t yet have a child at SMMHS but was instrumental in starting the Arts Guild for Theatre and Choral Arts at Notre Dame, where she knew Lennon.
Bringing Lennon to Signal guaranteed success for the new theatre program, Hendricks said, because “He kind of lights a fire under people.”
Before he arrived, a small group of students led by Laura Wilkerson started the Drama Club, while TAB leaders sought corporate supporters above basic memberships to help finance initial needs, which included buying basic tools and different kinds of saws for set design, as well as theatrical make up.
When her daughter started sixth grade at SMMHS the same year that Lennon arrived, Hendricks served as TAB treasurer and started raising money under auspices of the Mountain Education Foundation. “We were just constantly campaigning,” she said.
Amy Meller, whose family has long been involved in local theatre, said money is always needed because purchasing rights for shows is expensive.
“The rights for musicals are crazy,” said Meller, who has served as a TAB president in addition to various leadership positions with other community theatres. “Then, you’ve got to hire a choreographer and music director for vocals.” Replacing and upgrading stage microphones is a constant expense, she added.
“Fortunately, Signal Mountain bleeds theatre,” said Lennon, who praised the community for supporting the school’s theatre arts program.
The Signal Mountain Community Playhouse contributed money and initially loaned a spotlight before eventually buying a spotlight for the school’s theatre. Fundraising drives produced more lighting and an expensive new soundboard.
Since the auditorium is small, each show has four performances to meet audience response. And since theatre wasn’t part of the original design, the adjacent choir room serves as a dressing room, a janitorial closet off the stage serves as director’s office, and a storage room is far down a hallway.
A series of monologues titled “Relevant” was the program’s first presentation in the fall of 2009 and included Meller’s son, Eric.
The school’s first play was “The Foreigner,” presented in spring 2010. After that, Signal’s Theatre Arts program has generally produced a fall drama and a spring musical. “Senior Scenes,” featuring short scenes selected, cast, and directed by senior students, was introduced in January 2012 and has been presented in late winter thereafter.
Fall productions often hit on hard subjects, such as the death of a gay man in Laramie, Wyo., (“The Laramie Project”), a relative’s death from cancer (“Steel Magnolias”), and a scientific experiment to create intelligence that is first performed on a mouse and then a mentally challenged man with success but gradual regression (“Flowers for Algernon”).
Meller said the fall 2011 production of “The Boys Next Door” provided Signal students insight into how intellectually challenged young men live. Cast members visited the Trousdale School up the road in Cleveland to observe mannerisms and better understand resident students there. Many from there also came to see the show.
Visual Art teacher Betsy McClain led a drama club at the old Signal Mountain Middle School, but one wasn’t started at the new middle school until 2010 with the assistance of senior students. Taylor Smith led it in 2011 as her Senior Project.
Lennon also taught theatre to seventh- and eighth-graders, but those classes were dropped for a few years before being added back recently. Currently, theatre is offered one semester for eighth graders and the other semester for seventh graders. There is no class for sixth grade, but all middle school students are welcome to join the Middle School Drama Club, which Ruth Farrimond has led for the past three years.
The group now has two spring musicals under its wings. February’s show was double cast to allow every child who wanted to participate an opportunity to be in the play, Farrimond said, “because in order to know if you love that magical experience, you have to actually experience it!”
Farrimond replaced Lennon this year as director of the high school’s theatre arts program when he left to revive one at Howard High School.
Theatre has always been a part of the Diploma Program at SMMHS, first taught in the 2011-2012 school year with the first class completing its two-year study in May 2013. As such, students perform a critical analysis of text, study and compare elements of theatrical productions, look at how theatre was used in various cultures and time periods and learn how to apply research and theory to inform and to contextualize their work.
“Theatre is not a club,” Lennon said. “We’re studying theatre and if IB wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be studying theatre as a program. It legitimizes the study and pursuit of Art.”
Students keep a theatre journal throughout their studies to chart their development and experiences of theatre as a creator, designer, director, performer and spectator. This serves as their resume when auditioning for performance or technical scholarships.
Lennon and Farrimond are quick to note that each school production is totally student driven.
Students review texts, design sets and lighting, as well as costumes and makeup. They record and play sounds, produce, direct, market, coordinate people and technical elements, learn any necessary music and dancing, and of course, act.
“There’s a place for everybody, whether it’s on stage or as an organizer,” Meller noted. “There are lots of opportunities for leadership and creativity.”
Farrimond added that school productions are open to all students and that several “non-theatre kids” participate every year. She believes theatre enriches the lives of students because of the sense of belonging.
“Being part of a production is a magical experience that draws people together because you invest not just time and effort, but also emotional openness and vulnerability,” Farrimond said. “Theatre teaches students to empathize, support, communicate, collaborate, and find their own voice.”
Directors and parents also appreciate the bonds created among the long hours students devote to each production.
“They become very close together,” observed Meller, who has had children involved with school theatrical productions since SMMHS opened. She always enjoys “seeing the kids work so hard and the boosters and full audiences.”
Lennon agreed Boosters are essential to the program’s success and praised TAB presidents that also included Lisa Beeching and current leader Nancy Fell.
TAB is currently raising money to provide an outdoor space for set design and especially painting. If you’d like to support this project and ongoing expenses, send a check to SMMHS Theatre Art Boosters, 2650 Sam Powell Drive, Signal Mountain, TN 37377.