By Nick Yates, ISB Communications
The International School of Beijing (ISB) was a-rockin’ and a-boppin’ on Thursday and Friday as Elementary School (ES) students performed the musical Doo-Wop Wed Widing Hood. Packed with tongue twisters and 1950s pop, the fairy tale adaptation was a fun way for grade 3 to 5 students to show off their acting, singing, and musical skills in a packed theater.
It took hours of after-school and weekend preparation and rehearsals to bring this co-curricular production to the stage. While Doo-Wop Wed Widing Hood involved 126 students, dozens of teachers were needed to plan and choreograph the show. Chief among them were ES EAL teacher Sue Nilsson, and performing arts teachers Cyndi Campbell and Cindy Bulteel.
The trio are ES arts veterans. Ms. Nilsson has overseen the show for four years, and Ms. Campbell and Ms. Bulteel have each been directing and conducting at ISB for more than 20 years. Who better to explain how the production exemplifies the ISB Elementary School’s principles of inclusivity and balanced, social-emotional learning?
“The ES performing arts program covers music, movement, and drama for all students during the day,” said Ms. Campbell. “We want to offer after-school activities that allow students to delve deeper into any or all of those genres.”
ISB’s youngest students can play in bands (grades 4 and 5), string ensembles (grades 3, 4, and 5), and sing in choirs (grades 2, 3, 4, and 5) after school. A showcase for all these musical talents plus drama and dance, the annual ES Production is one more way for students to explore the performing arts.
Ms. Campbell and her colleagues choose scripts/scores that are accessible to youngsters and bring together all these types of performance. They re-write or edit scripts to involve as many students as possible and fair opportunities. “We’re sure that there is no one student who is a ‘star.’ There’s an equal division of lines, even if we have to split roles,” according to Ms. Campbell.
Ms. Nilsson describes this process as a jigsaw puzzle. “When I first came to ISB and put the suggestion for a show of this type to Cyndi, it grew from the prospect of being a stage play to involving the choir and various ES bands and becoming a true musical involving a huge cast. We then added dancing, which required choreography. The challenging part is bringing it all together. It’s only at the end of the rehearsal process when we can have access to the Theater and the set is built that we see all the pieces assembled.”
The ES performing arts program is truly inclusive in that it ensures every student can try out acting, music, and dancing, and take part in shows. There are auditions when it comes to the co-curricular ES Production, as there are for productions in higher grades. But for the ES Production, any student who wants a role will get one, albeit perhaps not their first-choice speaking part that they try out for.
In her half decade of performing arts at ISB, there have been many moments that stick with Ms. Nilsson. The balloon that was supposed to be a functional prop but developed a life of its own. Ruby red sneakers gifted to all adults coming to see The Wizard of Oz so they could click their heels like Dorothy.
But the all-time highlight of her career in ES drama came earlier on, when a painfully shy girl put herself forward to play the obnoxious Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I thought, ‘That’s great, but this could be really difficult for you,’ as it was a stage audition, with three or four teachers watching. We were all in for a huge surprise! The student was completely transformed on stage and her audition was outstanding. None of us had imagined that she had such potential within her and she was clearly the perfect choice for that role,” Ms. Nilsson remembered.
The experience stayed with Ms. Nilsson and helped make her a big advocate for theater in elementary schools. She was struck by the role performing arts can play in a whole-child education, by how experiences outside the classroom can complement conventional teaching.
“It was an eye-opener for me on the transformative impact theater can have,” Ms. Nilsson said. “Theater productions like ours promote communication skills and encourage teamwork and cooperation. They help build confidence and nurture positive relationships with others. There are so many benefits. Above all, they are fun and I hope that these experiences will become a positive and lasting memory for every student involved.”