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South Jordan Journal

Elk Ridge theater students apply lesson to real life to petition school board for increased patron capacity

May 05, 2021 09:10AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In Roald Dahl’s “Matilda, the Musical,” the little girl learns to advocate for herself and others to change their circumstances to make themselves happier. It’s a powerful lesson—and one that Elk Ridge Middle students are taking to heart.

Knowing this school year that audience capacity is capped at 25% for safety and health guidelines surrounding COVID-19, ninth grader Kelsey Brown, supported by fellow cast members, challenged that limitation; they wanted more school community members to come watch their school performances of “Matilda.”

“I thought, ‘wow, all this hard work will be basically for nothing’ if we couldn’t have more people watching our performances,” Kelsey said. 

Armed with the knowledge that with more people being vaccinated and noticing “things are opening up more,” the 14-year-old began a petition to increase the audience capacity, citing research from University of California-San Francisco about mask wearing, detailing procedures for patron temperature checks and ensuring there would be spacing between family groups. More than 500 people signed the online petition the first day.

Kelsey then went to the Jordan Board of Education meeting to present her cause.

“I was nervous, but knew I had to convince the school board we deserved to show the world our talent,” she said. “Performing for a nearly empty theater really lowers morale and makes all our hard work seem worthless.” 

After speaking for a few minutes, Kelsey left to watch the rest of the meeting online.

“After two hours of watching from my computer, they ultimately decided to allow up to 75% capacity since the 25% before was just a recommendation from the Salt Lake Health Department, not a rule they had to follow,” she said. “I was so excited; I was watching with others (from the cast) over FaceTime, and we screamed and cried and laughed. It exploded and spread around like wildfire that we did it.” 

Jordan Board of Education President Tracy Miller said the vote to increase up to 75% in live performances districtwide was decided after talking to the health department. She said following the CDC guidelines and Salt Lake’s transmission level from high to moderate also played a factor into the board’s decision. 

Miller, who said the board had heard from others also wanting the restrictions loosened, said board members opted to be cautious not to increase to 100% to ensure spacing between families and that school administrators have the final decision to increase the capacity.

“She did a great job presenting it. I love to see young students be actively involved in advocating in the community,” Miller said, adding that she knew other students were watching as she received a student email in support of Kelsey.

Elk Ridge Principal Curtis Jenson said he had heard about the petition and felt it was a good way to gauge interest in the issue.

“It’s a good experience for kids to voice their opinions,” he said about the student-led campaign. “Any time students can advocate in the right way, it’s a good thing. I think the timing was right for students to pitch it. It was smart and well-reasoned.”

Jenson and theater director Rebecca Schmidt set “Matilda” at 70% capacity, which works well with the spacing in the auditorium.

Schmidt said that after limiting the cast to 80 from the 130 who auditioned because of needing to maintain spacing during rehearsals, the group has pushed forward through the COVID-19 guidelines. She had 50 students in two stage tech classes concentrating on sets and about 35 on stage crew who afterschool with lights and sound. Parents have helped additionally with sets and costumes.

Joining Schmidt is choreographer Alicia Giove; music director Dave Martin; program and T-shirt designer and organizer Megan Rees; stage manager ninth grader Dallin Greisemeyer; and one of several student directors, 10th grader MJ Stowell.

Schmidt said she chose “Matilda” because she could showcase a lot of her talented students in leads as well as having students learn Matilda’s message of changing her story, not waiting to have something happen.

“They really took the message about change and took it to heart,” Schmidt said about the increased patron capacity. “The kids fully made it happen. I don’t know that many students who have ever watched a board meeting before.”

Kelsey said they also did it for Schmidt. 

“We wanted to do it for our teacher,” she said. “She works so hard, and when we told her about the board’s decision, she was so happy. It was a proud moment.”

Kelsey plays intimidating Big Kid #4 in the play and has two lines. And even though she’s not the lead, she has learned a lot from theater.

“It gives me a chance to show how I am, stand on stage and shine,” she said. “I’ve learned what I’m made of—and I guess that I was able to show that confidence in speaking and my ability when I talked to the board to get my point across for our cast.” 

Eighth grader Claire Burnham, who plays Matilda’s friend Lavender in the play and  helped circulate the petition, remembers watching the school board’s decision.

“I lost my mind and ran around the house doing victory laps when the board announced increased capacity to 75%,” she said. “Kelsey was very persuasive and very logically sound. I was amazed that they listened to her, to us. It is reminiscent of the play where a group of kids were unhappy and changed their situation; we did the same thing. It was an incredible experience to make a difference. We lived the play, and now we can perform the play.”