Lauren Jefferies took Gabe Cervantes' class during her first semester of sixth grade at Rockwood Valley Middle. When the new drama/speech teacher posted the sign-up sheet for the fall play that year, his first production at the school, Jefferies was the first one to add her name to the list.
"Then I walked out the door and I was like, 'Oh no. What if I do horribly?'" said Jefferies, now an eighth-grader. "But I didn't, and I'm here today so glad I signed up. Mr. C's the one who got me into this, and he's the one I have to thank."
A number of other Rockwood Valley students have shared Jefferies' experience over the past three years. Before Cervantes arrived, the school could expect a little more than 20 students to try out. This year's fall production, "Once Upon a Tower," counts 94 among its cast and crew.
That's about one in every eight students at Rockwood Valley. "Once Upon a Tower" had a big cast list to begin with, but Cervantes and assistant director and social studies teacher Cheryl Mueller also had to get creative with casting in order to include everyone who wanted to participate.
"There are a lot of trees and stuff," said Joshua Lanzotti, another eighth-grader. "A lot of trees."
In addition to the 60 on-stage parts – trees and otherwise – there are 34 more students working behind the scenes.
The sound crew? All students. Marketing, fundraising and concessions? All students.
"The kids have always wanted to put on a good show, a production that everyone could enjoy regardless of if they got the lead or if they were one of our extras," Cervantes said. "Through that, the kids brought up this concept of a family. They'd get together before the shows and pump each other up, share positive thoughts with each other and do their own team building. As a director, that's what I want: I want it all to be them."
The program has grown organically through the enthusiasm of the students. Jefferies, for example, talked her friend Courtney Kemp into joining in sixth grade and Kemp, in turn, helped push her friend Katherine Archambeault into getting involved.
That repeated within different groups all over the school, until they all came together into a cohesive whole.
"You get to meet and hang out with a bunch of new kids that you never thought you'd be hanging out with," eighth-grader Maya Jury said. "You make so many new friends, and it's so amazing how much your life can change in the span of a few months."
Mueller and Cervantes say the students embody the welcoming mantra promoted by Rockwood Valley Principal Dr. Karen Hedrick: Belong at RVMS.
"The kids have love for each other and the stage; they just have this kind spirit about them," Mueller said. "It's a neat thing, and it's just grown because kids want to feel like they're a part of something. They're all an important part of the group."
Opening Knight Productions will perform "Once Upon a Tower" at 7 p.m. on Nov. 21-22 on the stage in the Rockwood Valley cafeteria. Admission to the play is free, and donations are accepted.