The guiding philosophy of the North Merrick School District’s theatre arts program is, in a word, “inclusiveness,” according to Joyce Kelley, a sixth-grade teacher at Fayette School and the program’s director, choreographer and co-founder.
One might think that would make the program’s productions indistinguishable from the ubiquitous school play: a well-intentioned endeavor, but not a standout production. The North Merrick School District, though, goes about a few things differently from most, and the result, Kelley says, is that Hofstra University drama professors sometimes approach her after performances and remark, “You had some ringers in [the show], right?”
The answer is no, Kelley promises. Only sixth-graders from the district’s three elementary schools — Camp Avenue, Fayette and Old Mill Road — appear onstage. Running the theatre arts program on a district-wide, rather than school-wide, basis causes some logistical challenges, but it also has its advantages. It ensures a wider talent pool, with auditions steering the most natural performers toward lead speaking parts. (Other students appear as chorus singers, dancers and in additional supporting roles, and some choose to work behind the scenes on lighting, sound, set changes and the like.) The community also pools its resources, with North Merrick staff and parents working together to train students, create sets and costumes, raise funds and more. The theatre program is limited to the district’s most senior students, making it into a master class and capstone experience for those who sign up. Participation is voluntary, meaning all of Kelley’s theatre protégés “want to be here,” she emphasized.