“I’ve got the greatest job in the world.” Michael Wehrli, owner of New Moon Productions (www.newmoonproductions.org)
I was privileged to work for a week at Grout Elementary School with Michael Wehrli who has taught drama literacy and staged theater productions for ten years as part of the language-based art program at Grout. Principal, Susan McElroy, has been an avid supporter of Michael’s theater work at the school and has steadfastly pursued funding so this program can continue to thrive.
Michael’s New Moon Productions Theatre Company has provided services for thousands of kids in the Metro area, and the drama literacy program is just one of his successful endeavors. His website describes this program as “an innovative and fun theatre education program that strengthens elementary students’ literacy skills while they rehearse and perform a play for their peers, families, and community……(the program) is designed to foster children’s creativity, literacy skills, self-esteem, collaboration, and strong work ethic.”
I saw all of these intentions at work with the children as we rehearsed 4 plays with second, third and fourth graders which culminated in performances at the end of the week for the school, an assisted living facility and for families and the community. Michael had already worked with the kids for five weeks on these productions, and my job was to assist with the final rehearsal process, serve as left-side stage manager, lead warm-ups, assist with costumes and sets–and generally help supervise and corral kids throughout the rehearsals and performances.
There were many delightful moments during the week–one of which was reading and hearing the imaginative scripts that Michael adapted for this production. My favorite was a two-part version of Rumplestiltskin adapted from (wait for it, boomers…) Fractured Fairy Tales from Rocky and Bullwinkle (ah, the memories!). Of all of the many talents of Michael, he is also a writer–and he knows how to write for kids. In addition, the literacy component was quite apparent as the kids mastered such words as splendorous, resplendent, prosaic, vanquish and forsooth. Quite impressive!
Cast of “Rumplestiltskin 1”
Cast of “Rumplestiltskin 2”
Although I have co-directed kids in theater productions, my focus was on singing and choreography. This was a great experience seeing kids– under the direction of a skilled writer and actor–truly understand the nuances of the story and bring that story to life because of that understanding (drama literacy). More importantly, I believe Michael’s success with these kids is due to his consistent patience and gentle teaching. This takes a very special type of skill and inner strength when teaching with kids of all types temperaments (e.g. the kid who rolled all over the floor during rehearsals; my ‘charge” who took gleeful pleasure in squishing my feet while waiting in the wings; the kid who loved poking his head outside the curtain to steal glances at the audience). These antics made me laugh–but made Michael’s job challenging.
I asked Michael to tell me his favorite part of his job: “I have the reminder every morning with the kids of being fully present in that moment. Kids teach you how to instantly pivot from frustration to joy.” I also asked him to reflect on the skills that he thought were necessary to do this job well: “Ideally, you must be calm and allow ‘swirling’–but know when there is too much. You need to let go of your ego and remember that this is about them and their experience. Of course you need theater and teaching experience with a value in simplicity of direction and presentation.”
Michael also stated that the most challenging part of his job was the constant corralling of kids: “Some days that’s all I do, and it can be discouraging. But I realize that that’s where they’re at. and we just make space for it.”
Michael developed New Moon Productions in Texas, where, as a working actor, he realized his “hidden” passion was teaching theater to kids. He brought New Moon to Portland when he and his wife moved here, and he has been a driving force in the theatre community ever since. He spent 5 years directing his musical productions in Washington Park, runs summer theatre camps and conducts outreach theatre programs. Check out his website!!
During my week with Michael, we received news that our Brady dog was very ill, and we would have to make the very tough decision to euthanize him. Although this was profoundly painful, as I arrived at the auditorium and heard the joyful sound of children’s voices, as I stood with excited kids in the wings helping them pull on costumes and frantically find props, as I saw Michael’s kind face across the stage–it was a balm to my sad spirit.
As Michael said, with kids you have to be in the moment. Truly, they are our best teachers–and healers. Thank you, Michael, for a great week.