Last Spring I attended a Middletown Middle School performance of the Seussification of Romeo and Juliet directed by Joleen Jessen. I knew several of the students, and there were some hilarious standout performances. It was very entertaining. What struck me the most, however, was not the performances, but the stats that Jessen, the 7th-grade Language Arts and Drama teacher, gave out prior to the start of the show.
Last year, out of 22 participants, 50% had all A’s (Principal’s List), over 50% had participated in both spring sports (softball or track) and the play, 9 had been chosen by their teachers as Students of the Quarter, 2 had Fs in English but by the time of the performance had brought their grades up to Bs, 2 created the Daily Bulletin for school every day, 100% had zero disciplinary incidents, 3 were bilingual, and 1 student had a major truancy problem and had completely turned that around by the time the play happened. And, spoiler alert, this past quarter she was on the Honor Roll and has a big role in this play as well! That is quite a testament to the power of the arts on learning outcomes.
While I cannot guarantee that Jessen will be reading off stats this time, I do know that this year’s show, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, will be just as entertaining and will likely have the same positive impact as last year. These students are dedicated. And, since my son is doing the sound, I was able to read most of the script a few weeks ago. It’s a great story, and I can’t wait to see how it all ends. The show is loosely about putting on a show and all of the chaos that ensues.
I attended a rehearsal before the Thanksgiving Holiday, and the atmosphere when I came in was a bit chaotic as you might expect from a middle school rehearsal. There were 7th and 8th graders on stage, waiting to go on stage, and running lines; some 5 and 6-year-old baby angels and their wranglers; and, Jessen. Keeping everyone on the same page is hard, even when you are working with adults and when you have a stage manager and an assistant director. Jessen has neither.
I should correct my first statement. It was organized chaos. Jessen was firm with the students one minute, “So-and-so, why are you standing there? You should be downstage when you walk on.” To another student, ”What are you doing? You didn’t know your lines earlier. Shouldn’t you be running lines right now?” And, then gently correcting the way a third student walked, the next. “You’re Mary,” (as in nativity scene Mary). And, later, by way of motivation to the same student, “This is your moment.”
I also watched her position another student, Lincoln Goetz, in such a manner that he wasn’t covering one of his fellow actors. Unfortunately, after Jessen made the correction and walked away, the other actor who had been blocked by Goetz previously and who wasn’t paying attention saw that Goetz had moved, so he moved. Goetz was torn between trying to convey that the other actor should stay put and not wanting to talk during rehearsal.
Jessen managed the actors while simultaneously discussing costume options and thanking the baby angel wranglers, scheduling a set painting session, and making sure all the students who needed to catch the bus were dismissed on time.
When I first asked if she had an assistant director or stage manager, she smiled and said, “You know, now that you mention it, perhaps I will fill those roles for the next show.” She seemed to take all the commotion in stride. This is her 11th show for MMS since moving here from San Francisco, where she taught at a Dramatic Arts magnet school. This is not her first rodeo. She’s done this before.
In fact, she’s done this show before. In 2015, after the Valley Fire, she used kindergartners as the baby angels for that production. And now three of those kindergartners are middle schoolers performing various roles in this year’s production: Emma Sanderson, Lily Morita, and Jessen’s daughter, Phoebe Jessen. As for this year’s baby angels, she couldn’t be happier. The day I came to rehearsal, she was quite pleased. She had just given them their lines, and they had already memorized them. “They all just killed it!” Her son, Kai Jessen, was not there that day but will also be one of the baby angels.
Absences due to illness have been her biggest challenge with this show. She told me the week prior, only 8 out of 24 students were present for the rehearsal. Every day that week, kids were gone.
Along with challenges, I always like to know what directors find surprising about rehearsing for a particular show. When I asked Jessen what she found to be most surprising during this process, she told me that she found it interesting how many students didn’t know the story of the first Christmas. Not necessarily from a religious perspective, just from a shared cultural perspective. She had to first explain that story in order for the students to understand the theme of the show and why the plot of the show is a bit ironic.
The show is about unlikely heroes. The people in the town who know the story are desensitized. “And, the most unlikely of characters who hear the story of the birth of Jesus for the first time shed a new light on what the story is all about through their embodiment of the various characters of the nativity.”
She was also surprised by how many students wanted to be involved, by those whom she would never have expected to audition, and by how good and believable they were. “Emma Smith, who plays Beth the narrator in this production (and who played Juliet last Spring), was a mouse last year until after rehearsals started. Jaden Klewe has been steadfast and so consistent through every rehearsal. And, Jaden (Klewe) and Lincoln (Goetz) are naturals.”
And, it’s not just the actors who are dedicated. She has a crew who is just as passionate. Sierra Cude designed the set, Jimmy Reynolds handles sound, Emma Sand is on the spotlight, and Joseph Robertson, who works the curtain, is conscientious and takes careful notes. Jessen says that the students in this show are the nicest kids on campus. She really enjoys the sense of community that they have.
If you’re looking for a heartwarming and humorous Christmas tale suitable for the whole family, check out The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Friday, December 2nd and Saturday, December 3rd at 7pm at the Middletown Middle School Multipurpose Room. Tickets are $5 a person.