In Chapel Hill, elementary school kids take on Shakespeare and ‘Oz’

As arts programs across the nation have felt the squeeze of reduced funding, Savada Gilmore, a teaching assistant at Estes Hills Elementary School, has accomplished something remarkable.

Starting with zero budget, he managed to start a drama club at Estes Hills this school year, putting together two productions in the inaugural year, including a Shakespeare play.

Gilmore, who studied performance theater at High Point University and has acted and directed professionally for years, has been at Estes Hills for six years. He is a Chapel Hill native and got his start in acting at East Chapel Hill High under Theresa Grywalski. Gilmore said she saw past his class-clown antics to the performer within.

Each year, Gilmore said, he’s talked about starting a drama club at Estes Hills. This year, second-grade teacher Karen Andrews, who has no theater background but likes to incorporate drama into her lessons, said she would help, and Gilmore decided he would give it a try.

“I just thought that it was something that was missing at the school,” Andrews said.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro elementary schools offer art and music classes, but not theater. Only two of the district’s other elementary schools have drama clubs: Carrboro and Northside.

“I just think it’s an opportunity that should be more widespread,” Gilmore said, “because it’s really benefited our kids. … I wish there were more options like this in elementary school. Why wait till middle school or high school?” when students can take theater as an elective.

The first thing Gilmore had to do was raise money.

“All I knew was I have to go out and get it,” he said. “That’s the hustler in me. … You’ve got to start from the ground and build up.”

He went to the Estes Hills PTA and made his pitch for funds. They gave him the maximum amount they could, $500. Then he requested and got a grant for $1,100 from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. He also sold tickets to the club’s first performance at $5 each, netting $3,000 from three sold-out shows. The club has money left over to start the next school year, Gilmore said.

He had more interest in the club than he expected. Even after bumping up the membership ceiling from 25 to 30, he had to tell 12 students they wouldn’t be able to join. Members were selected by lottery, with preference given to fifth-graders.

The club’s first production was “The Wizard of Oz,” which it put on in March. The club is doing musical selections from the play on the Southern Village Green at an 80th anniversary screening of the movie at the Lumina.

Gilmore called on a vast network of friends, mentors and relatives to help him put on the production. Two former Chapel Hill music teachers, Joy Douglass and Pat Beyle, provided choral direction and musical support. After “The Wizard of Oz” wrapped, Gilmore was ready to take a break for a few weeks, but the students wanted to get right back to it.

Gilmore, who has toured with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, let them try their hand at Shakespeare, selecting the comedy “Twelfth Night.”

“Yes, Shakespeare performed by elementary-aged performers,” Gilmore said.

The club will put that play on to mark the end of the school year on Friday.

Changing lives

Gilmore, who would eventually like to be a drama teacher, said he’s been struck by the growth in confidence, self-esteem and teamwork of the drama club students.

“This has changed a lot of their lives,” he said. “That is what I didn’t anticipate. It gives kids the opportunity to be good at something and to have success somewhere. Now they feel like they can do anything, and it can translate back to the classroom.”

He’s also been struck by how the club has brought the school together and built a sense of family.

Gilmore says his goal, in addition to providing something fun for the students, is to teach them theater the right way. He wants them to learn skills that will continue to serve them as they study theater in middle school and high school, and beyond.

Eva Sofia, a fifth-grader, played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” and is preparing to play the lead role in Twelfth Night, Viola/Cesario. She had never acted before drama club.

“It’s helped me explore what I like to do,” she said, “because I’ve always like the idea of acting. It’s fun and it let’s you be who you are.

Sofia said she wasn’t shy before, but acting has made her more self-confident.

“Being in drama club broke me out of a shell that I didn’t even know I had,” she said.