DMS Presents… The Gift of Performing Arts

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by Traci Gagnon

For many years children attending The Duluth Montessori School have embraced the opportunity to shine on stage in front of a captive audience of peers and family members. The first official children’s opera that we presented was Pearl in 2005. Through the years we have seen our productions evolve from that very first year with Youth Opera International to this past spring when our students presented a production largely written, composed, and choreographed by them! 

The tradition of performing arts in the classrooms of DMS actually started long before 2005.  Our founder, Mrs. Overholser, always encouraged her students to write stories and act them out for their classmates.  I can remember being a child in her school in East Point before she moved to the Duluth area. My friends and I performed many plays for younger classmates on our magnificent covered porch.  Sometimes it was an original story and sometimes it was an interpretation of a book like The Elves and the Shoemaker.  These were not elaborate productions but they did offer great experiences that included everything from a simple set and costume design using materials on hand to learning lines and entrance cues.  Years later my daughter and her friends carried on the tradition by performing a semi-original play in the backyard on our Sugarloaf campus. It was a compilation of stories that they morphed together into one play and it was unique!  We, as parents, enjoyed the creativity and ingenuity that went into their performance.  

In 2005 we partnered with Youth Opera International to bring a more formal production to our school community.  Sanford and Judy Jones provided the story, music, and choreography along with guidelines for costume and set design.  In the weeks before the opera students practiced the songs and learned their dances while parent volunteers labored for weeks in the “Sugarloaf Sweatshop” to bring the costumes and sets to life.  The week of the performance Sanford and Judy Jones were on campus for the Opera Workshop where the production was fine-tuned and everyone prepared for the big event.  Over the years we have hosted many Youth Opera International Workshops, each culminating in a special production.  

Two years ago we decided that it was time to move in a new direction.  We had been cycling through three main stories over the years; Pearl, Harlequin, and Persephone.  The classrooms were filled with familiar songs and the younger students couldn’t wait until they were old enough to participate.  These productions brought amazing things to our school community and we all enjoyed the benefits. Working in the Sweatshop drew parents closer together and gave them a new appreciation for all their children were gaining from DMS.  The performers themselves were enriched beyond our imaginations from the experience! We saw instantly the boost in confidence when a reluctant performer mastered their fear and sang in front of classmates.  Even before that, we saw the character-building benefits during auditions when a disappointed student congratulated his friend for getting a part that he really wanted for himself. Although the benefits were vast, our students were ready to move beyond the familiar and venture into something new, something less adult driven and more organic.  

With the framework that was built over the years our elementary teachers set to work with the children to adapt The Odyssey into a children’s opera. The students (and teachers) worked long and hard to build a story that would work for the stage.  They wrote songs and choreographed dances. There were new challenges and many new benefits! We began to see an exciting array of creativity, imagination, and self-expression take off in the classroom.  The concentration that was building along with the confidence, empathy, and patience proved that we were in for something truly special, not just in the production, but in the lasting benefits for the performers.  The Odyssey was a wonderful show and opened the door for last year’s production of The Story of the Timeline of Life As Told By DMS.  It was incredible to see what our DMS students were capable of!  They took on all aspects of writing, composing, choreographing, organizing and designing.  It was amazing! Our adolescent students fine tuned the story and created costumes and sets.  When performance week rolled around they ran the show! When the final song was done and everyone took their bows the entire community glowed!

I know you can’t wait to see what DMS Presents…next!


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