Soul-Fulfilling Musical Work

Kiersten Whitehead’s office walls are filled with artifacts from nine years of musicals. At the end of each show at FCS the cast signs a piece to add to this collection and in a few weeks she’ll have a tenth item to put up on her wall. The 6th grade musical has become one of the most beloved traditions at FCS. Kiersten says working on School of Rock with this year’s class “has been so soul-fulfilling for me. The students’ energy feeds me. Their excitement about seeing things come together feeds me.” 
 

Kiersten grew up in a very musical family and started performing when she was just 5-years-old but she knows that’s not a common experience for most children which is why she thought it was important to make this a universal experience for students at FCS. In musicals Kiersten notes that a whole class can participate because “the casts are larger [than in a play]. Telling stories through music is bigger and bolder. Within the story you have this strong crazy emotion which is why you have to sing something.” The combination of music, dancing, and public speaking can be transformative for children and that is why participation is mandatory for every student in the 6th grade. Every student performs, tech is handled by 7th and 8th graders so every 6th grader has the experience of being on stage. 

School of Rock, 2022

Kiersten has seen many benefits come from the program. “The way it brings the 6th grade together is pretty mind blowing,” she explains. “There is this incredible cohesion of the group. It pulls students out of their comfort zones. It gives them this confidence to get in front of a group and speak. Some students you barely hear speak in the classroom learn to develop these full, vocal characters. On stage they just blossom.” 

The musical is also a key component of their curriculum. They study the text in English class, they create set pieces in Art class. Art teacher Brighid Willson notes that the musical gives students “an entire year to delve into creativity. The production is different from what you might find in other schools because of our collaboration across subject areas. The kids are learning both aspects of a play, the behind the scenes creation of material and how to be on the stage. That makes it a unique experience.” That experience often extends beyond the school day too - historically families have helped to build sets, create costumes, and participate in the production in other ways. 





Once On This Island, 2018

Isaac Witte (‘21) recalled his experience this way, “The FCS 6th grade musical taught me how rewarding it is to work hard for something and have it pay off. Kiersten gave me the opportunity to push my limits and supported me the whole way. She always believed in me and taught me what I can achieve when I put my mind to it.”

Mary Poppins, 2019

For the past two years musicals looked a bit different thanks to COVID. The class of ‘22 was weeks away from performing the Lion King when school switched to remote and the show was recorded in Burnt Mills Park in Silver Spring and via Google Meet in homes. The class of ‘23 learned and recorded all of the songs to Newsies online and then filmed scenes from the show on location throughout the town of College Park while lip syncing to the musical tracks they created. 

Newsies! 2021

In stark contrast, this year the musical will be performed live, outdoors, on campus. Students are not only singing live but performing the instrumental music as well. Kiersten chooses the musicals for each class based on the unique qualities of the student body and she knew the class of ‘24 had the guitar, drum, and keyboard skills necessary for a show like School of Rock.

School of Rock, 2022

That being said, when Kiersten casts a musical she doesn’t go into it knowing which students will play which roles. There is an audition process and the day cast lists are posted is her least favorite day of the experience. “I hate that I break hearts and I know that I do but I think it’s really important for students to learn that you don’t always get the role you want.” Kiersten intentionally casts so every student has the opportunity to grow in their own unique way through the experience. 

Beauty and the Beast, 2017

Kindergarten teacher Alexandra Whyte has worked with Kiersten on many of the musicals. She says Kiersten has “brought a level of professionalism to the performing arts at the school thanks to her work and her high expectations combined with her ability to support every child. She makes students feel that every part matters. The community building is unbelievable. Kids develop respect for one another because they see another side of one another that they might not have seen otherwise.”

Lion King, 2020

As each musical progresses, Kiersten talks at length with students about what emerges from the story. “I try to pick shows by looking at the thematic ideas and how well they will fly for 11 to 12-year-olds. I think about what they’ll learn.” In School of Rock they’ve discussed how on the surface it’s about the lead character, Dewey, lying and trying to make money. But at its core the story is about “kids finding their voice and finding out who they are.” 

Ilan Menasce plays the lead character, Dewey, in this year’s production. “I just love the character,” he said on the last day of rehearsal. “When you actually get to this point where you’ve memorized your lines and it’s just you going through it and embodying the character, it really allows you to let go and just be the character in a fun way.”

School of Rock, 2022

The week of the performance, rehearsals take place during the day and after school. Set pieces are lined up by the front entrance, and the rock band and actors can be heard singing and playing music nearly every day. How lucky we are to hear them finding their own voices and finding out who they are as a community and as actors once again. 

FCS Musicals by Year

2013 - Seussical
2014 - Overnight
2015 - Mulan
2016 - Honk!
2017 - Beauty and the Beast
2018 - Once on this Island
2019 - Mary Poppins
2020 - Lion King
2021 - Newsies!
2022 - School of Rock




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Located in College Park, MD, Friends Community School is a progressive Quaker K-8 day school, founded on the belief that every child is a valued member of our community. We offer a challenging curriculum imbued with strong values of equality, integrity, community, environmental stewardship, simplicity and peaceful conflict resolution, rooted in our Quaker heritage.
Friends Community School
5901 Westchester Park Drive
College Park, Maryland 20740
301-441-2100