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Middle schoolers take high school stage in Olathe festival

Special to The Star

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Some middle school students might squirm at the thought of being silly on stage in front of hundreds of their classmates.

Hunter Grosz, however, can’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing.

On Tuesday morning, the eighth-grader joined more than 20 other California Trail Middle School students in a comedic ensemble performance of “How to Succeed in Middle School Without Really Trying.”

And as his exaggerated antics drew laughter and applause from the audience, Hunter couldn’t wait to take his talent to the bright lights of a high school stage.

Fortunately for him, that moment will come next week.

Hunter, and all the other cast members of his play, will represent California Trail in the Olathe School District’s annual middle school theater festival on Wednesday and Thursday, with performances split between Olathe East and Olathe North. The performances are not open to the public.

Students representing each middle school will perform one-act plays during the all-day events. In between each show, high school students will perform improvisation skits and answer questions. The high school theater directors will offer acting tips and talk about their respective school’s drama department.

The kids also perform their one-act play for their own middle school, before or after the festival.

Grosz, who has attended the festival every February since sixth grade, said it is the highlight of his year.

“Each middle school offers a different style of show, which is really cool to watch,” he said. “It’s a great way to make friends with other students who might end up at the same high school as you. The whole experience makes high school seem less scary.”

One of his sixth grade cast members, Anna Carr, will be heading to the festival for the first time this year, and she’s eager to see what all the fuss is about.

“I’m a little nervous to perform in front of all the other middle schools, but I’m sure it will be a fun day,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends while doing this play and I like to make people laugh. It’s been a great experience.”

Their theater director, Melinda Kearney, isn’t surprised by their enthusiasm.

For almost 30 years, she has seen her middle school students have the same reaction.

“This festival expands their theater family and gives them a sense of belonging,” Kearney said. “And it really shows them what to expect. Every year, the students come back pumped for high school.”

That’s the feeling at Santa Fe Trail Middle School.

Beth Dean, the school’s drama instructor, has been helping her students prepare their one-act performance since the beginning of the semester.

She looks forward to the festival every year because it’s a great way for the middle school theater teachers to share ideas and catch up.

But the most important function of the festival and theater in general is helping kids blossom, Dean said.

“Public speaking is something these kids will have to do throughout their life,” she said. “Being involved in theater calms those nerves and really boosts confidence. It inspires them to speak up in class or take the lead on a project, which are skills employers and college professors want to see.”

Dana Davis, the Olathe district’s theater facilitator, agrees.

All of Olathe’s high schools have fantastic drama programs, she said, and the festival helps theater-loving kids realize it.

Her advanced theater class at Prairie Trail Middle School is excited to showcase its one act play, “15 Reasons Not to be in a Play,” at Olathe North on Thursday.

“We’ve been working so hard,” said seventh-grader Austin Shively. “A lot of effort goes into memorizing lines and understanding blocking and knowing how to become your character. It’s really fun though.”

Davis has no doubt their hard work will pay off at the festival.

“It’s a bigger stage with way more people, so it’s definitely nerve-wracking for them,” she said. “But it’s an incredible experience for the kids to see a world where other people have the same interests as them. That is so important for them to witness at their age.”

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