Students at Martin Elementary will stage a Disney KIDS musical at their school next spring, thanks to the Disney Musicals in Schools grant program.

“It’s a Disney musical — all of our kids know these shows,” said Leigh Ann Fairman, music teacher at Martin. “It’s an exciting way to get students involved.”

Cumberland County Playhouse education director Weslie Webster explained the 17-week program provides schools with free performance materials and free professional development. 

“This has the opportunity to change school culture,” Webster said. 

Principal Christie VanWinkle said, “We are so excited our students will have this opportunity. It gives students not involved in other areas, like sports or clubs, an avenue to express themselves.”

Schools can choose from a variety of Disney favorites adapted for a 30-minute kids musical, with titles such as Aladdin, The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Frozen. The capstone experience includes staging the show for the school and community and performing one song from the show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.

Martin will begin rehearsals in January and will pick their title at that time, offering participants the chance to give their input. The show will take the stage in May.

Webster and fellow Playhouse company members DeAnna Etchison and Cory Clark will serves as the professional teaching artists for the program, assisting Fairman and other teachers as they take on the production of a school musical. 

“If we want to keep theater alive, we have to teach our young ones to love it,” Etchison said. 

The cast will focus on students in third- through fifth-grade, but Fairman hopes to get the whole school involved. She is working with art teacher Rebecca Walther and third-grade teacher Jennifer Gilbert. 

“I have very anxious and willing artists,” Gilbert said. “I can’t wait to tap into their talents.”

Gilbert believes the program will offer motivation for her students in areas of academic performance and attendance. 

As part of the school’s afterschool program, participants can also enjoy snacks in the afternoon, homework help and transportation, VanWinkle said. 

Fairman noted there aren’t many extracurricular activities for students in this age group, but that it’s a great age to introduce them to the theater. 

“The kids may not not it yet, but this will mean something to them,” Fairman said. “They’ll have the opportunity to experience the theater, and once you experience it, it changes your life.”

Fairman was involved with the Playhouse in her youth, attending summer camp at Martin Elementary in the Little Theater. 

“We shared our drama teacher with the Playhouse,” Fairman recalls. 

The program offers a return of that partnership between local schools and the professional acting company. 

“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity,” Fairman said. 

The Playhouse applied for a $25,000, two-year grant from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

“It’s just the beginning,” Webster said. Another school will be selected next year, and she hopes to see the program expand to all nine Cumberland County Elementary Schools. From there, she said it could expand to surrounding communities, too. 

The grant is an outreach of TPAC’s Disney Musicals in Schools program, which launched in 2011. Last year the program served more than 1,300 students in Davidson and Bedford counties — at no cost to the students or schools. Cumberland County joins Coffee County in a rural expansion of the program. 


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