Thousands of middle and high school groups apply to perform at The Educational Theatre Association’s International Thespian Festival each year, but only a handful are chosen. This year, Owings Mills’ Jemicy School is one of those groups. The troupe’s hard work and passion earned them the opportunity to perform their student-run musical, Peter and the Starcatcher, at the festival this June in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they will also attend a week-long educational theater workshop.
The theatre program at Jemicy School, which teaches students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences, has inspired students to immerse themselves in the arts, whether it be in tech crew or on stage. “We go to great lengths to showcase our students, their talents, and what’s possible for any student who is willing to commit themselves to personal or artistic excellence,” says Sean Elias, theatre director at Jemicy. “At the time I was brought on, the theatre department hadn’t existed before, so an abundance of creative opportunity existed here . . . the opportunity to craft and build a curriculum, alongside an extracurricular theatrical season, in tandem with instilling new cultural practices were things I never thought I’d have the chance to do.”
Since Elias’ arrival, the program has thrived and inspired students to pursue theatre both at Jemicy and beyond. But running the department is not without its challenges. Elias says that many of his students entered the program with negative academic and social experiences at previous schools. Working on productions in class and on stage has proven to be a useful learning tool. Peter and the Starcatcher, for example, is part of the school’s season of fairy tale adaptations, which Elias says have enabled the students to engage with literature and celebrate “both their artistic creativity and accomplishments and their unique personal journeys towards adulthood.”
“To see these kids transform into newfound expressive and passionate versions of themselves, doing some of their best work in class and on stage, and then celebrated for these achievements has been one of the most profoundly meaningful experiences of my life,” Elias says.
Junior Gracie Stilling was bullied in middle school before joining the theater program during her freshman year at Jemicy. In it, she found a more welcoming place to learn and grow. “In middle school I was never accepted,” she says. “Then I came into high school and found theater, which is now my foster family that I never had as a kid but always wanted.”
Despite the long hours, theater has helped Jemicy students in other areas of their lives outside an academic environment. “It’s made me more confident in my own skin, it’s helped me find friends, learn a lot about myself, and about others,” says junior Andrew Spriggs, who plays Black Stache in Peter. “It’s taught me a lot about humility and what it takes to be a true, authentic, real person, to live in your own skin and be proud of yourself.”
And the accolades don’t hurt, either. When Peter and the Starcatcher was recognized by the Educational Theatre Association, the cast and crew were awestruck. “I was on vacation when I found out,” says senior Chloë Wendler, who plays Molly in the production. “I read through my text messages, and they all said ‘Congratulations! I can’t believe we’re going to Nebraska!’ I was just in shock, I still can’t believe it’s true even now.” Sophomore Ethan Lifson-Book, who stars as Peter, says “It’s incredible knowing that you tried for months and studied your lines for hours. Hearing those words is a feeling you can’t describe.”
In 2017, Jemicy was invited to attend the International Thespian Festival through the Send a Troupe to Festival grant. In 2019, they are returning based on the strength of their performance, making them the first Maryland school in nearly two decades to perform on the main stage at the event.
The group’s first appearance at the festival emboldened the students to take Jemicy’s theatre program to the next level. “The first year, I remember Jemicy going to nationals we were 11 or 12 kids, just this tiny little Maryland troupe that nobody knew about,” says Spriggs. “We were just there to have a good time and to learn, and what a lot of us took away from it was that high school theatre was no joke. There is this professional standard that these schools hold themselves to.”
All the performers and tech crew members who auditioned or interviewed at the 2017 and 2018 festivals received multiple college callbacks. And, while not all the performers are headed off to college just yet, many of them share an earnestness for a future in theater.
“As a school of need, rather than of choice, It was a deeply meaningful moment in our school’s history to be given the chance to attend the [festival],” says Elias. “To be invited to return, based not just on need or opportunity, but now on merit and accomplishment is yet again another historic milestone in both the school’s history and that of these kids.”