MARQUETTE - Often when people think about school, images of books and bubble sheet test forms come to mind.
But it isn't always in the standard classroom where students are learning valuable skills that will help them after graduation.
Sometimes, it's in the front row of an orchestra, singing with a chorus, dressed in 1600-era clothing and reciting the words of Shakespeare at stage right.
The cast for Marquette Senior High School's performance of “Shrek, The Musical” listen as director Laura Kagy talks about the night’s upcoming rehearsal. Fine arts programs in the area seem to be finding a way to stay relevant, even as state mandates elevate the importance of core academics, such as science and math. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"Fine Arts Education is crucial for developing musical talent and strength. Acting, singing and dancing involve real concentration, stamina and dedication, traits that will stay with students for the rest of their lives," said Laura Kagy, director of this year's Marquette Senior High School musical. "They learn about working as a team, of course, with the result that they experience cooperation among themselves, mutual support, encouragement, and drive. All of these qualities make them better students and ultimately, better prepared to function later in the workforce."
But time and again, headlines highlight school districts that cut their arts programs as finances begin to get tight, citing stringent academic standards that leave little room for other types of classes.
No stranger to this problem, Kagy has been directing plays since 2009, when she helped found a drama group in Iron River.
"West Iron Co. High School did not have any drama department, so some students and I decided to start a community drama group for middle school and high schoolers," Kagy said in an email.
The group organized a bake sale and a rummage sale to raise the seed money needed to get started, performing "Grease" in its first year on a shoestring budget.
"Iron River, just as so many other smaller communities have done, had to cut so many fine arts classes, that these programs just weren't available for students. Most of the young people I worked with there had never had any acting experience, and many had never sung with a group before, outside of church. They learned and progressed so rapidly that it was startling," Kagy said. "Here in Marquette, I have a student who just told me that since joining the Drama department, his grades have improved tremendously, and he attributes this directly to working on the plays and musicals. This kind of reinforcement is impossible to ignore."
It's these types of experiences that Kagy, along with the students involved in Marquette's drama department, say are essential pieces of the total high school package
"(Drama is) a way of expression, a way of letting out emotions you can't really talk to people about," said MSHS junior Andy VanWelsenaers, who plays Lord Farquaad in the MSHS musical. "Music is kind of that thing that everybody relates to and can relate to and it really is an intelligence builder. It helps teach you things you can't learn in a classroom."
"I can't say enough about how Fine Arts programs make students feel part of a community, that they belong to a group with a common purpose, and the group works together to keep each other on track," Kagy said. "That kind of peer involvement is incredibly valuable to a teenager. They become a family, and friendships form that stay with the students for years to come."
Those friendships are formed from hours spent after school and on weekends, rehearsing and preparing for opening night.
Students in Marquette schools have been hard at work since September readying for opening night of "Shrek - The Musical."
And Kagy said what they learn from this experience will last throughout their lives.
"I believe that the time spent in rehearsal, with students studying their homework when they are not on stage, results in the student learning discipline, self-control, persistence, and focus," Kagy said. "All of these traits, in addition to the others mentioned above, create students well-prepared for college and professional lives after high school."
"Shrek - The Musical" will run from Nov. 7 through Nov. 9, with all performances beginning at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $6 for students and seniors and $12 for adults, and can be purchased at EZ ticket outlets, the Northern Michigan University Box Office and Superior Dome, online at www.nmu.edu/tickets or by phone at 227-1032. Tickets will also be available at the door.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.