How do you measure the impact of the arts in schools? Montclair’s Glenfield Middle School is uniquely committed to the arts and exploring what a connection to the arts does for its students has inspired “Then and Now: A Ceremony for This Time” a collaborative effort of the students and performing arts staff.
“Then and Now: A Ceremony for This Time,” is both a performance piece that premieres this Friday, March 22, at a gala performance at Glenfield, and the subject of a new documentary film, showcasing some 150 students and Glenfield teachers, and telling the story of the creation of the piece, which involves student actors, dancers, singers and musicians.
Both the performance piece and the new documentary connect students to 1995, when an 18-minute documentary film was made about Glenfield’s first “Ceremony,” a collaborative performance piece. The 1995 documentary will also be screened during Friday’s performance and several students who appeared in it — and continue to work as artists and performers today—will share their stories at the gala performance.
Lauren Hooper, a former Glenfield student who was featured in the 1995 Ceremony performance/documentary, works as an actress and can be seen on Showtime in King of Paper Chasin’. Hooper says it was her experience at Glenfield that shaped who she is today and helped her find her own creative voice.
“We were encouraged to try things that could feel difficult and scary in a safe environment,” says Cooper, who returned to Glenfield to teach master classes along with another alumn, Ricardo Riethmuller, who started his own theater company and is getting an MFA in directing, and assist in the creation of the new “Ceremony.”
Glenfield dance teacher Whitney Kitts, who has been at the school for 23 years, says the learning opportunities students encounter in the arts stay with them the rest of their lives.
“Whether they become performers or not, it’s up to them, but everyone needs to know how to use their creativity and express it in whatever they do. To know they have the ability to work together, brainstorm ideas and collaborate rather than compete, is invaluable,” says Kitts.
Kitts recalls the first “Ceremony” in 1995. “We decided to do a full evening piece that would explore world dance forms and focus on what the experiences kids were going through in terms of bullying and working through tough moments,” says Kitts.
The students learned world dance from invited experts and songs were created out of a student’s poetry, which was turned into a song by local musician Dana Crowe. “There was a wonderful sense of collaboration with many artists and the kids themselves,” says Kitts of the 1995 performance.
That spirit of collaboration and creation both continued and expanded in 2013 with all of the performing arts disciplines working together to create the performance the audience will see on Friday.
One example is the music. The 1995 Ceremony relied on original songs that were prerecorded and played at the performance. This year, instrumental music teacher Jonathan Ward took that original music and re-orchestrated it for his musicians to perform and collaborate with dancers and actors as a live pit band.
“We always have to revamp everything we do to fit the kids we have and time period we are in,” says Ward. “The  songs were good songs, but we had to modernize them to make them sound like something kids of today would enjoy playing and listening to.”
Students actively shaped and influenced every aspect of the performance, including improvised moments in dance. “Improvisation allows for a deeper, more authentic way to move together through time and space,” says Kitts. “And these kids really like creating their own stuff – they are powerful creators.”
The acting pieces were also improvised in their creation. “We empower the students,” says Tom Lupfer, who teaches acting and musical theater. “Your art is what you bring. We’re giving students a chance to make art in different forms and giving them a tool kit they can use, but at the end of the day, it’s all about what the students bring. They’ve created a really personal piece.”
Creating the new performance piece sparked a lot of reflection on “then and now,” and how different the world is. “The students talked about difference between 1995 and their own lives and through those discussions, they were able to create,” says Lupfer, who adds that out of those discussions came “The Grid,” a scene created out of improvisation that explores the effect of technology.
The link to the 1995 Ceremony allowed today’s students to form a connection to the past and the present, something that echoes throughout the new work.
“They are learning how to make meaningful connections, something they will have to do throughout their lives,” says Kitts. “And that’s something the arts are so wonderful at bringing forward.”
Hooper adds, “You not only learn to make meaningful connections, but you connect with yourself. When you are taught and expected to express yourself, you learn that people care about what you think and that what you feel matters.”
A safe space for self expression is an important outlet, especially during middle school. “It’s so important for kids at this age to feel like they have a home, where they can connect to other kids and not feel like they are lost. It’s a very big school. This makes it more intimate, and it gives them something that they can latch on to,” says Lupfer, who adds that the new documentary, made possible through the assistance of MFEE and a grant from the Horizon Foundation, will highlight issues related to communications, connections, and relationships – issues crucial to middle schoolers.
The arts at Glenfield also teaches students life skills you can’t get in a typical class room experience. “One example I give students is — if you do badly in math class, your grade suffers, but it won’t affect the kid sitting next to you,” says Ward. “If you’re in a dance or orchestra or a scene and don’t know your part, everyone on stage will suffer. That’s why the arts are important because we can do things that other subjects can’t do. Students learn responsibility here more than in any other class.”
Rick Kitts, who teaches both acting and dance and helped his wife Whitney develop the 1995 production, worked with his acting class students to develop a scene for this year’s performance on classroom conflicts. “It starts out with kids fooling around, but then the scene builds and becomes much more serious. It segues into a song “Walk a Mile” from the 1995 performance which creates a powerful connection.”
Through both the performance piece and the forthcoming documentary (which will be edited in April, completed by end of year and submitted to film festivals, including the Montclair Film Festival), Glenfield teachers hope to illustrate what it is about the experience at Glenfield that is unique and the importance an arts education can play in the lives of kids.
“The level at which these kids are at now is incredible and it opens so many doors,” says Rick Kitts. “So many alums are now professional singers, dancers, choreographers, directors and that door first opened here. Glenfield was their launching pad and the effect that this place has had on them propelled them into their future careers.”
“Then and Now: A Ceremony for This Time”
Who: All ages.
What: A gala performance including a screening of the 1995 “Ceremony” documentary; a panel of students who appeared in that original film, including several who are professional artists; and the premiere of “Then and Now: A Ceremony for This Time.” In addition, there will be a special pre-show, adults-only reception/fundraiser and an after-show “Mix and Mingle” for everyone.
Where: Glenfield School, 25 Maple Avenue,Montclair, NJ, 07042
When: Friday, March 22
Cost: general admission, $15; with pre-show reception, $50