Fisher Middle School has a beautiful auditorium, complete with a stage that has played host to all manners of events.
On April 16, that will change. It’s opening night of “Annie Jr.,” the first musical play Fisher will ever put on.
Before you ask, yes, this is the show you’re thinking of, about a plucky, red-fro’d orphan looking for the real meaning of family. It’s just tailored to fit the age range—in Fisher’s case, sixth through eighth grade—of the kids performing it.
Lauren Tenaglia, the producer and director, says the idea to set lizards a-leapin’ on Fisher’s stage started with one of the school’s musical enrichment classes she went into one day last year. The class was studying musical theater, and the kids were absolutely enthralled. And it struck her that Fisher had a beautiful place for shows and a chance to give kids an outlet and have some fun—why not take advantage of it?
The idea of giving kids a place to grow creatively is no passing thought for Tenaglia. She’s been a teacher at Fisher for 13 years and was every bit the theater/musical kid when she was in school. She’s always wanted to do a musical but didn’t have the nerve to try and put one together, she said.
Also, Tenaglia teaches autistic students and understands that kids with special needs often need to be encouraged in areas where they have hidden talents. Many of her students are taking part in the show; it includes students of all abilities. It’s been a happy surprise for Tenaglia.
“We have a lot of hidden talent and a lot of hidden creativity,” she said. “Even some of the kids didn’t realize what they had.”
Hugh Dwyer, assistant principal at Fisher, and an early ally to Tenaglia’s efforts, is all about this part of the deal.
“Middle school years are the second-largest developmental transition an individual goes through,” he said. “It is very important for a school to do its best to support this developmental time academically, socially, and emotionally. A part of that is allowing a student the opportunity to explore different interests.”
Fisher expanded its enrichment offerings two years ago, well after more traditional academic side-programs like wood shop went away.
“When Ms. Tenaglia approached me with her initial interest in having FMS perform a play, I was immediately excited,” Dwyer said. “It was another aspect we could offer to a student to help them develop.”
Tenaglia applied for a grant from the Ewing Public Education Foundation to fund the production and got the $4,100 she asked for. And she’s grateful, of course. She just had no idea how much it actually cost to put on a play.
Tenaglia used to do lots of plays, but she was always a performer, never a producer. She had no idea how much individual pieces of a production cost, like $900 for royalties and script and $1,000 for the costumes and set materials, plus still-growing expenses like publicity and promotion and wireless microphones. If she had to do it over again (and she’s thinking ahead to next year already), she would have asked for $6,000 to give some breathing room and to keep her hands out of her own pockets if it comes to that.
One downside to doing the play at Fisher is that there is no longer a woodshop class that could have pitched in to build the sets, as is usually the case with the students at schools like John Witherspoon in Princeton. On the upside, part of the “Jr” aspect of the show is that the music for the songs comes pre-recorded (“kind of like karaoke”), so there’s no band to hire, Tenaglia says.
Tenaglia chose “Annie” because when she looked at the demographics of the school she realized the population gave a nice mix that suits the parts well. And because it’s familiar.
“I did not know the movie was coming out,” she said about Hollywood’s latest telling of the story that came out over this past Christmas. “I just thought it was fun and catchy, and it had a lot of girls’ parts in it.”
In December Tenaglia held an “interest” meeting to see whether the students would want to do the play. About 50 showed up, but not as many boys as she was hoping to see. She speculates that because “Annie” is generally considered a “girl” story, boys might have been less interested.
“I had the joy of taking part in all of the auditions,” Dwyer said. “It was exciting to have so many students cross the stage and perform.”
About 40 of those original turn-outs stayed, and though it’s new territory for all involved, things do seem to be coming along. Not without its growing pains, of course.
“At times she needed a sounding board for ideas or problem solving,” Dwyer said. “But so far, it’s working out well.”
One of the other things “junior” brings to the production is a shorter play. Instead of three acts, there’s one, a total of 11 scenes. At first, getting through the scenes was a repetitive effort. It took a month to get through the first three, Tenaglia says, but then the magic of theater kicked in. It suddenly was no longer a bunch of kids reading lines and memorizing lyrics. It was kids actually internalizing their roles and knowing the songs.
“Suddenly they got the story,” Tenaglia said. “They got the empathy.”
Entering April, the cast and crew are in the honing phase, and Tenaglia is excited for that moment when the curtain rises and the experience becomes a real community event. This year’s tickets profits will help fund next year’s show, whatever that may turn out to be.
And if she’s given the gift of creative expression to the kids in the show, Tenaglia has come to be seen as a blessing for doing so.
“Ms. Tenaglia has worked tirelessly to take this idea into a reality,” Dwyer said. “Thanks to her dedication, the school and students will have a chance to see their peers excel and display their talents.”
Fisher Middle School’s “Annie Jr.” will run April 16-18 . Tickets are $5. For more information, visit www.ewing.k12.nj.us.