Laughter Brings Happiness in "Cutie and the Beast"
The snow was falling fast as I entered the parking lot of Woods Cross Elementary. The frosty atmosphere hung white and soft, like a giant pillow that had exploded overhead, the contents falling in a feathery manner. I felt the snow kiss my face as I gathered my gear from the back of my car. A single flake stuck to my eyelash for a second as I tiptoed through the slush into the school.
Holding the door open on escape, a student looked up at me as I crept inside. The familiar scent of sweaty bodies mixed with the aroma of a typical school day, reminded me of one of the days when I was an elementary school teacher before I was a storytelling photographer!
The busy after-school rush was fading and a quiet calm held sway in the halls. I ducked into the office to check-in. I was here to learn about how the school integrated the arts through the after-school theater program directed by Eric and Sandy Jensen and their volunteers. Little did I anticipate the explosion of excitement, knowledge, and inspiration that were waiting for me on this snowy afternoon.
"Everybody, yeah, yeah."
"Gonna get that beast!"
The small room where the kids were rehearsing was even more pungent. Wide-eyed little strangers eyed me as thoughts filled their heads: Something is new. Someone different. How exciting.
As I set up my camera, the rush of backpacks, snow boots, and chatter started filling up the tiny room. I thought there would be more time but as soon as I was ready with my camera settings, the singing began. I watched for a while: the director; the intensity; the focus. From the outset, it was clear these kids meant business (likely a result of great directing, coaching, and encouragement). I was pulled into their energetic vortex of confidence.
Secretly, I wanted to be back in fifth grade.
I wanted to hear what was going on inside their heads so as they were directed to “sally forth,” I chatted with a few children about their experience in the program.
Addy enjoys laughing with her friends: “Laughing creates happiness.”
Bailey feels smarter: “I know more things about the world. I can be funny and witty.”
“I am happy that the rehearsal is serious and fun at the same time and that we work hard and that we get good at it”, says Mayte.
Not only did the students love the opportunity, but I met a teacher down the hall, Mr. Hutchings, who was building the set, helping with auditions, and supporting the Jensens any way he could. He showed me a few set pieces when I visited his room. I thought to myself, “His students are seeing his example of supporting the play, helping fellow teachers and students, and most importantly they see the joy all these things add to his life.”
Malia Hawley is a volunteer choreographer that is helping with the program. I watched her with the kids and when she had a few minutes I asked to know her ”why.” She said that her brother was in the show last year and she saw the difference it made in his life:
“He was unsure of himself but as he practiced and was given encouragement from Mr. Jensen and others, he learned that it was a safe environment and he could do his best.” She could see how far he had come and how performing changed his life. “He made more friends and it gave him a place to belong and he could be himself.”
Just like the character in the play, Gaston, Mr. Jensen can do it all. He wears many hats: writer, director, music director, costumer, producer, etc. He volunteers his time because he loves the kids and he knows how it will improve their lives. As Mr. Jensen was fitting Gaston into his beast head. I stepped into the hall and visited with Noah, who plays Gaston in the second cast.
I asked Noah how being in the show has changed his life. He excitedly professed, “This show helps me get over my anxiety of talking to people. I can do more things like play my guitar in front of people. Singing a song by myself helps me get myself out into the world and I can show people my voice and what it can do.”
The enthusiasm and excitement from this one student melted my heart and made me so happy to know someone like Eric Jensen, a person who is making miracles happen in small and simple moments in many lives. I wish that each child could share their story–a story of change, of acceptance, of courage, of hope. The next student I talked to spoke about all these things in her story.
Last year, Mayte Garcas was a fairy. She was shy. She was not great. She did not know for sure. This year, Mayte plays the role of Cutie. She never dreamed of playing a lead role and thanked Mr. Jensen for the chance to be a lead. Mayte appreciated that in this program everyone had an equal shot, and the same people weren’t chosen for the lead roles each time. I asked her how her participation in the program changed her life. Mayte said that when she was in the fourth grade, she did not dare ask a question to her teacher. If her teacher or someone else asked, “Do you get it? Do you understand?” she would just nod her head and say, “Yes.” She didn’t dare tell them she didn’t understand. As a sixth grader, now when Mayte doesn’t understand something she bravely uses her voice and says, “Please help me, I don’t understand.” This makes her feel powerful.
“It’s ok if someone judges you for your singing. You should only care about what you think and the good things that other people say about you.“ Amen, Cutie!
The cast started rehearsing on the stage. The volume got louder and louder. I took a few minutes to ask the administration what they thought about the program. Suzanne Dixon, an admin intern, shared her positive experiences with the program and described the involvement of the school’s Community Council. In Suzanne’s words, this program has “given opportunity for the kids to express themselves through not only music but dance, acting, singing, and art. Opportunities for friendships and growth and knowledge about themselves and those around them abound.” To know that others are invested in you is truly a magical way to know you belong.
Miss Thalacker helps volunteer her time to assistant direct the play with Mr. Jensen because she saw the difference it made in kids' lives from the previous year that she worked with them. It also helps her to boost her own confidence in being more outspoken. Art imitating life. She dedicates three days a week for five months to help with costumes and tech for the rehearsals and performances.
As I gathered my things to leave the school, I made a wish. I wished that each child giving their all in the performance on May 19-20, 2023, would feel unique and empowered. That in their roles—whether big or small—that like the snowflakes still coming down outside, each student would shine and sparkle in a show of beauty, strength, and magic: each one unique, each one beautiful, each one belonging to the magnificent show that creates magic in “their moment” before the memory melts away.
Lisa Gemperline is a photographer and arts enthusiast in Farmington, Utah. Mother of five and Grandma Lulu to three grandchildren, Lisa seeks opportunities to see things others can’t see, with the aid of her lens and camera. “When I’m behind a camera, my mind shifts from worry and fear to excitement, hope, and wonder. It’s like magic.”