“Theatre is important for so many things,” says Michele Canepa, one of the drama teachers at the Olympic Peninsula Academy.
“It helps students by allowing them to be someone else for a while. It can be someone who doesn’t struggle with anxiety or isn’t shy…and while they’re learning how to do that, they have a safe place to fall and get back up. It also helps them work as a community.
Students from the Olympic Peninsula Academy (OPA) will perform two plays at the auditorium at Sequim High School, 533 N. Sequim Ave, June 3-4.
Grades 1-5 open with a 15-20 minute performance of “Dragon Trouble” at 7 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with grades 6-12 following with “The Big Bad Musical” on both afternoons, and a third performance at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Performances are free, a $5 donation is suggested.
Light snacks and refreshments will be available during intermission.
“Money earned goes back into the OPA’s drama program for sets, costumes, scripts, etc.,” Canepa said.
COVID and Cramming
Canepa and Dee Dee Nielsen have been in charge of the theater department since 2008; this will be their 13th production. Along with musical director Sara Benjamin, the duo worked intensely with students and volunteers to prepare for the production.
This will be OPA’s first production since 2019; COVID-19 put an end to the production the students were preparing for Spring 2020, to the lasting disappointment of those involved.
Teachers “didn’t even know until this semester” whether they would have a production this year, resulting in shortened prep time, Nielsen said. The students received their scripts at the end of March.
“We cram,” Nielsen said. “We had a week to build all of our sets.”
“We spent the week in the theater after rehearsals building sets, painting and fixing problems with the sound system,” Canepa said. “Students work hard to prepare.
New on stage
“Dragon Trouble” features 20 elementary school artists, many of whom have never been on stage before. Familiar characters like knights, princesses, dragons and crooks are depicted in an unusual way. It also features an uncommon character: a jackalope, a mythical hare with antlers often seen in Southwest postcards.
At a recent after-school rehearsal, the students worked on projecting, blocking and memorizing their lines, appearing cheerful both on and off set.
Two narrators, Bradley Mader and Ashley Elliott, stand on either side of the stage, explaining the action as it unfolds. Every kid except the jackalope (played by Azlyn Blessington) has a talking part.
Elliott said it was her first time performing in a play and she learned throwing and memorizing. She said she tried out for the role of narrator and was “luckily” cast.
“It’s cool that I can be with my friends in this room,” Elliott said.
The big mean wolf
Sixth-grade performance “The Big Bad Musical” centers around a trial, bringing together three folkloric wolf crimes at the feet of a single wolf.
It features a talented cast of 18 new and experienced performers. Nolan Valenzuela anchors the cast and stars as the mad judge, seated center stage, with the defendant and her attorney, played by Paloma Franco and Kailah Blake, stage left.
Prosecutor Aiden Carlquist-Bundy or stunt double Aiyana Dennis dominate the stage, while behind sit a powerful cast of character actors, whose performances feature plenty of laughs.
Malachi Byrne periodically takes center stage as a television journalist.
“It’s a really good role,” he said.
The students said they liked the plot of the play and that it was difficult because they started so late. They said they appreciated the chance to “become a different person” and enjoyed being together.
Nielsen and Canepa “taught me so much,” said Valenzuela, a ninth-grader who has been with the program since first grade, where his first role was as a knight in “Dragon Trouble.”
These young performers rehearse three different endings to the play. Which one will be performed will depend on each audience, as they will be the jury.
The cast has a special experience in store for Saturday night: a unique performance mimicking a blooper reel.
Nielsen said many siblings and some cousins are involved in the two plays. She said it’s normal at the OPA for families to have multiple children going through the program and for people to come back after graduation to help with productions. His own daughter and son-in-law, graduates, are involved in the production.
“OPA students work alongside their family members in our performances,” Canepa said.
OPA is built around cooperation between families and the school.
“Our mission is to support and encourage families in the Sequim School District by providing personalized educational opportunities and resources, with a commitment to flexibility and choice, regarding student educational guidance,” Canepa said.
Singing solos on stage can be nerve-wracking, especially if it’s the first time in front of a live audience, but the performers bravely go into it, coached by Benjamin.
“We have tried for years to teach [students] to project,” Nielsen said. “But we had kids who were too shy and it’s not fair for the public not to hear them.”
Nielsen and Canepa emphasized the importance of encouraging every student to perform, regardless of personal challenges.
“We’ve had deaf, autistic, or Asperger’s students,” Nielsen said. “We shouldn’t let that stuff hold them back.”
Teachers said that at OPA they “choose plays by cast rather than picking cast by play.”