When the students of École Dundonald School invited the audience to Be Our Guest with their musical production of Beauty and the Beast, it was an important moment for a school that had experienced a significant amount of change and transition.
At the same time as the school welcomed a new French immersion program in September 2017, it also said goodbye to more than 200 students who moved to the new Ernest Lindner School and experienced the departure of a number of staff members.
For teachers Brenda Irvine and Heather Shewchuk, continuing the school's tradition of musical productions provided a welcome opportunity to bring students together and build relationships within the school.
"Every second year we work with our school team and present a musical," Irvine said. "We know and believe that the fine arts play an integral role in creating community amongst our staff, our students and our community families. In the past we have performed The Wizard of Oz and Shrek. This year we chose Beauty and the Beast, which is our biggest and most challenging musical to date."
The production involved students from Grade 5 to Grade 8 with the 55 cast members coming from both the English and French Immersion steams.
"The connectedness between our English and French Immersion programs was strengthened by having both immersion students involved in our musical and immersion teachers involved and lending their time to help our students," Shewchuk said.
Very few students had previous musical or theatre experience so the production was an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and learn new skills alongside others.
"We were taking a big risk," said Katelyn Hewison, who played Cogsworth, the butler. "A lot of us have never done anything like this before and we thought we couldn't do it. But the opportunity that the school gave us showed a lot of us that we can do it and we could even pursue it in the future. You never know what you can do until you give it a try."
The production began with auditions in early January and rehearsals ran over the course of several months ahead of three performances that took place in mid-April.
For many of the students, involvement in the musical provided another opportunity to be excited and engaged in their school and learning. Some reported an improvement in their grades and all said that being part of the musical had a positive impact on their life.
"The musical means a lot to me. I think it has been a really fun learning experience and I also made a lot more friends," said Ryan Stevenson, who played the role of Lumiere.
"I like how much work you have to put into it and it's a really nice place where you can be yourself. A musical is also a way to show off your inner self. My teachers and parents have helped me make an awesome costume, helped me memorize lines and make this the best musical I have ever been in. I can definitely see myself doing more musicals in the future."
The team approach to the production and the level of cooperation and working together needed to ensure a successful production had an effect on all of the students and staff, according to Ashlyn Koback.
"Sometimes people think you can only build strong bonds through sport teams, but they are wrong. Our cast and crew has built such a strong connection. The staff and students are all amazing and it has been such an honour to work with all of them," said Koback, who had the role of Mrs. Potts
From a teacher perspective, Irvine and Shewchuk said extracurricular activities such as musical productions provide students with a unique opportunity to showcase skills and talents they may otherwise have not discovered.
"They were very surprised to realize what they could actually do," Shewchuk said.
And, in the process, the cast and crew build relationships with students and staff outside of their classroom or grade level.
"The community we have built in our school is strong and it feels like a family," said Irvine, adding that as the performance dates drew near many students realized that they didn't want the experience to end.
"Being a part of this musical was amazing," said student Jordyn Fitzgerald. "I made a ton of new friends over the past few months. I have become so much more comfortable around all of the cast and I truly believe I can call them my family."