Jenison Junior High Goes Under the Sea!

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It may have felt like mid-January outside the JCA last week but inside Jenison Junior High theatre students were bringing the tropics home with their production of Disney’s, The Little Mermaid!  Directed by Holly Florian, this was the second musical presented by the Junior High since the opening of the Jenison Center for the Arts last year.

Little Mermaid-play 125 copyFor Ms. Florian, choosing this year’s show was an easy decision:  “Coming off of Mulan last year there was a lot of positive feedback about Disney shows and we knew The Little Mermaid would be a good one to continue the excitement for the Junior High program and people recognizing that these kids can do great things too.”  The 60 Junior High students were supported by High School theatre volunteers and elementary students who have auditioned to fill the smaller roles.

Arial was played by 8th grader, Ashley Hillson, who is growing up in a musical home singing alongside her mom who plays the piano.  She loved “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid when she was little so she was excited to be awarded the lead role.  She admits that it can be a challenge to balance her time between rehearsal, school and spending time with her family but she loves seeing the show come together.

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Arial’s guardian is, of course, the precocious Sebastian played by theatre veteran, Zach Avery.  Zach was excited to be part of a show that uses more complicated sets which includes a giant ship and dramatic backdrops.   He got used to his giant claws by practicing with oven mits!

In the fall, close to 100 students came forward to audition to be part of the musical and Ms. Florian says that she would like to see the program continue to grow, include more students every year and provide opportunities to showcase the talent of the Junior High.

Ashley, Zach and Ms. Florian would also like to encourage any students who may be thinking about getting involved but finding themselves with cold feet.  While auditions can seem intimidating the teachers help make it comfortable by breaking up the acting and singing portions and teachers give advice.  “I feel strongly that at this point in their acting careers, for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve done this, they need some front-loading, they need some coaching.” [Ms Florian]  The auditions are seen as an environment for learning about the characters possible actions and feelings and it’s exciting to see the students growth from that early starting point.

Little Mermaid-play 168 copyAshley and Zach are both appreciative of the theatre training they are receiving at Jenison.  “I feel like all the kids that are in the theatre program are inspired by their older peers, so a lot of the students are helping each other.  There’s a lot of cooperation and friendship with the students.”  Ashley adds, “I feel like we have something really extraordinary here.”

If you are a junior high student with an interest in learning about the theatre program or getting involved you can participate in Theatre Club that meets once a week starting in late February.  Contact Ms. Florian and listen for an announcement for details.

Congratulations to the entire cast and crew of The Little Mermaid!  All of our theatre students continue to make our entire community proud!

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Missoula Children’s Theatre Returns to Jenison!

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The beginning of October brought a community favorite back to Jenison:  The Missoula Children’s Theatre! Our K — 12 students were invited to audition and actors were chosen to fill roles in the MCT version of the classic story of Robin Hood.

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The Missoula Children’s Theatre has been coming to Jenison for twenty years and their mission is develop life skills through participation in the performing arts. To accomplish this goal their 25 – 45, two-person teams travel each week to a different city and work with kids to perform one of over thirty unique shows.  They bring everything they need to put on a show including the set, lights, scripts, costumes, props and makeup. There are only five rehearsals and then the group performs for an audience.  For their week with Jenison they had 60 actors from every grade and were especially encouraged by the number of older students who were involved.

Jeremy Cunningham has been working and traveling with the MCT for eight years and for this production he took on the role of Sherwood [of the Forest] while his wife and teammate, Jenny, acted as Director.  Jeremy was impressed with the Jenison Center for the Arts and had faith that the students could pull off a terrific show:  “The kids are great; they’re doing a really good job.”

The rehearsal was carefully executed from giving the youngest students early time to practice their lines and singing to a careful instruction on the purpose of each prop and the responsibilities that come with them.  Both Jenny and Jeremy kept the crowd attentive and interested as they explained each item to the eager crowd.

Missoula Children’s Theatre puts their unique spin on classic stories to allow as many students as possible to participate. In the MCT version of Robin Hood there is a Merry Band filled with bad actors who think they’re good which means these twelve students did their very best to be bad.  One of those is Band member Trevor Kohley [Senior] who has performed with the MCT every year and he is currently working on the Jenison production of Charlotte’s Web which will be held this November and he sees himself pursuing musical theatre after high school.

Sixth grader, Pateyn Bounds eagerly explained that this is her first year in Jenison after moving from Memphis, TN and she thinks the play is ‘excellent” and has really liked being involved in something new.  Seventh grader, Gabe “Blaze” Herdegen plays a comedian in the Merry Band and likes theatre because he “likes being able to step into someone else’s shoes and see how they think.”  He thinks that acting is a great way to combine all the activities he loves such as gymnastic, cheerleading and singing.

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The Missoula Children’s Theatre is close to Jenison Theatre Director, Todd Avery’s heart as it is how he and his wife, Penny, spent the first two years of their marriage — traveling with the company and teaching students the important skills of performance that go well beyond the stage.  “It’s been a great way to help us get elementary students in particular involved but it’s a great place for high school and junior high students as well.


The Merry Maids and one little skunk! [Don’t worry! There are more!]


Jeremy Cunningham of MCT plays Sherwood [of the Forest].

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Sherwood [of the Forest] and his many skunks!


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The skunks wait patiently for their turn on stage.

 Congratulations to all of the Robin Hood actors!  Your hard work has paid off and made us proud!

High School Production of Wizard of Oz Amazes Audiences!

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The Jenison High School Thespians and Music Department took on a legendary classic for the first musical production in the new Jenison Center for the Arts and they did not disappoint! Performing to a sold out run for the first time in Jenison theatre history, the classic story of Dorothy finding her way back to Kansas was beautifully performed by the hundreds of actors, musicians, crew members and support staff.

Tryouts began after Christmas but rehearsals were thwarted by the many snow days this winter.  Bringing the show together with those set backs didn’t stop the group from being the kind of team required of this massive production. Kim Nagy, Vocal Director, says that is what impressed her most: “The kids have just done an absolutely incredible job, everybody has completely pulled together.  This has been the tightest cast we’ve ever worked with and absolutely delightful to work with from beginning to end.  Mr Avery stresses professionalism with the students and they live up to that.”

Senior Jenna Bassett was thrilled to play the Wicked Witch of the West which is her “dream role”, “I love being the villain; it’s really fun” and plans to try out for roles at the Civic Theatre in Grand Rapids after graduation because “it’s something, that once you get started you never want to leave”.

Will Docsa, a senior originally from a small town in Kentucky, played the great and powerful Oz and spoke about the role and his time with Jenison Theatre with a bright smile and unmatched enthusiasm.  “I didn’t really fit in very well, I was sort of an outcast and loner but I was encouraged by my English 9 teacher, Mr Brossiet, to join theatre and I really just flourished here.” Never having considered theatre before he caught the keen eye of Mr. Brossiet during a class reading of Romeo and Juliet, “I was reading it very dramatically and he recommended it and I thought I’d give it a shot.”  The role of Oz is one of his favorites and was particularly impressed with the culmination of the teams that came together for the pre-recorded pieces such as tech, audio, camera, make up and editing, “it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve seen Jenison theatre ever do.”

Will is also quick to give props to Mr. Avery, not only for his directorial abilities but the important role he plays in Will’s life:  “Mr Avery has always been like a father figure to me and without him I probably wouldn’t have gotten as successful in high school as I am today.”

“The show is bittersweet because it’s my last show here but our first show in the space”, says Katherine Searcy, playing the role of Dorothy. Amazingly, Katherine had not seen The Wizard of Oz until two years ago, but she was excited for the opportunity nonetheless. For her, singing and performing in the new space “is a little scary but it makes me really happy, it really does.”

The new theatre really got to stretch its wings by showing off the special effects required of this show such as a tornado, flying monkeys, a flying witch and even Miss Gultch riding her bike while flying through the air!  Of course, Toto [played by Lulu Byrne] stole his fair number of scenes as Dorothy did her best to keep him close.  The musical accompaniment led by Orchestra Director Dave Zomborsky, was positively professional and the entire musical team were the hidden stars of the show.

“The community came together to give us the wonderful gift of the new performing arts center.  With our production of The Wizard of OZ, our hope was to take that gift and give one of our own in return.  We love our gift and hope everyone enjoyed their gift, as well.  It was a joy to work with my fellow directors and this great cast, crew and orchestra full of talented young people.  History was made with this production, and it was an honor to be a part of it.”  Mr. Todd Avery, Director

Congratulations to the team for a fantastic run and an incredible job well done!  As always, you make us proud!

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Dorothy played by Katherine Searcy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

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Glinda the Good Witch played by Marysa Miller floats to Munchkin Land

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Sean Daley playing The Cowardly Lion

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Scarecrow Gerrit Veldt, Tin Man Nate Altena, Dorothy and The Cowardly Lion are off to the see the Wizard!

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Sean Daley and The Wizard of Oz, Will Docsa

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There's no place like home!

There’s no place like home!





Jenison’s Center for the Arts Opens in Grand Style

After two years and over 50,000 man hours of dreaming, designing and digging, the Jenison Public Schools Center for the Arts opened this week to hundreds of expectant community members. Supported with over 390 tons of steel and boasting 1,251 seats, we are so privileged to provide a beautiful, well-appointed home for the arts for generations to come, and above all, wish to thank this community for making this vision a reality.

Fine Arts Center, Jenison Public Schools

The stage, whose floor is certified by the American Dance Association, spans 90 feet in diameter and touts a one-of-a-kind retractable dividing wall, enabling casts and crews to better customize their performance space. With over 3 miles of cables hidden beneath the stage and 60 locations for microphones, students will be heard–and seen– from any point in the hall. In fact, despite the soaring ceiling and custom wood chandelier, the furthest point from the stage in any direction is just 85 feet! Performances are also able to be broadcast live, with 8 different recording tracks available so that individual singers can be isolated out from the group.

Finally, for comfort within the hall, air is circulated in the most “green” way possible. Beneath the seats are vents covering two chambers that perfectly mix both cool and warm air. Once blended at a precise temperature, heat seeps up from the floor rather than blowing audience members in the face. This technique not only ensures proper temperatures throughout, but reduces the electrical use that fan systems require.

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Jenison Public Schools

Other impressive details show that every suggestion was heard and each thought considered in the planning of this facility:

  • The make-up room stretches wide and has sinks in each corner for easy preparation and clean up.
  • Costume rooms have sewing machines and a front-loading washer/dryer for a complete costume production experience.
  • Sets are designed in-house in a specially-designed shop with saws, plenty of electrical outlets, and towering ceilings.
  • Double doors protect each entrance to the hall, providing a sound-proof experience.
  • Walls are designed for acoustics, maximizing sound travel.

This holiday season, visitors will also enjoy the painted instrument sale whose proceeds benefit the Jenison Public Schools Art Department. Please consider taking home a masterpiece this December! Until then, take a tour with us and leave a comment with your first impressions!

What most amazed you about our new Center for the Arts?


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JHS’ Zombie Prom Opens Tonight!

With the stage dimmed and a nuclear waste dump aglow, Zombie Prom is ready to light up the night with its off-Broadway tale of forbidden love. Set in the 1950’s at Enrico Fermi High School, bad boy Jonny and innocent Toffee star-crossed sweethearts with more than a few hurdles in their path.

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As the last production in Jenison’s current high school facility, Zombie Prom is a fun spoof for students, but no less serious when it comes to the preparation required for a successful show. In fact, students began rehearsing the play just two weeks into the school year and have been working overtime in recent days to make sure everything is perfect.

Mr. Avery, director, is enthusiastic about Zombie Prom, although the thought of so many years gone by on this same stage is bittersweet for him. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to focus because I keep seeing other shows in my memory. There are over twenty years of plays and musicals scrolling through my mind when I watch these kids perform.”

A younger cast than in years past, this group is energetic and hard-working, proving that while difficult, they have been able to step into the dozens of pairs of shoes left empty by last year’s seniors.

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Junior River Gibbs, Stage Manager for Mr. Avery, says that he’s feeling prepared, and that while the actors may have more challenges with song and dance, the set is manageable for the crew. Additionally, he credits the team’s preparedness to Mr. Avery’s training and equipping.

Seniors Triston Shannon (playing Jonny Warren) and Katherine Searcy (playing Toffee) are passionate about theater and about their future in film or on the stage after graduation. As for Zombie Prom, both say it’s a fun, feel-good show with music that keeps it light and lively.

“What makes this musical different is that the music never stops. It’s more of an operetta, hopping from one number to the next. At first glance, it seems like it’d be easy because it’s silly, but with all the music and choreography to learn, it’s actually quite difficult to pull off,” said Mr. Avery.

Join the cast and crew tonight for a terrific send-off performance in the Jenison High School Auditorium. Show times are:

Thursday, November 7 – Saturday, November 9

7 pm nightly

Tickets available at the JHS ticket window

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Missoula Children’s Theatre Brings Hansel & Gretel to Jenison

While some might balk at the idea of casting, costuming, and producing an entire play in just one week, the Missoula Children’s Theatre has learned to make it look as easy as a Sunday picnic in July.

With Tour Actors and Directors Mr. Preston-Joseph Woods and Ms. Taylor Peters overseeing every aspect of the production, one hundred and nineteen students from kindergarten to 12th grade tried out for the honor of participating in the late April rendition of Hansel & Gretel.

Hansel & Gretel, Missoula Children's Theatre, Preston-Joseph Woods, Taylor Peters

Tour Actor/Director Preston-Joseph Woods (on right) has been with the Missoula Children’s Theatre for one year.

photo of Missoula Children's Theatre, Hansel & Gretel, Jenison Public Theatre

Thank you to Paul DeBoode & Al DeVol for taking this week’s photos!

Four hours of auditions trimmed the pack of student hopefuls to just fifty, and soon practices stretched through the after- school hours and into the evenings. With song, movement, and hand motions to be mastered, “new campers” and “nasties” prepared for their woodland run-in with the candy-house-dwelling witch. (The adaptation of this 1812 Brother’s Grimm tale expands on the traditional story in order to allow for a greater number of students to participate).

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While one might assume that lack of time would be the most difficult aspect of this kind of production Preston-Joseph shares that it is actually the challenge of learning names, working with, and building relationships with a new group of kids each week.

“Every week you get kids with new personalities, likes, and dislikes, and it’s up to you to make the show enjoyable for them… I really like this aspect of the job because by the end of the week you have made a connection through theatre that lasts a lifetime,” said Preston-Joseph.

“Honestly, kids are quite amazing in what they can do with such a small amount of time, and we are so used to only having a week to get the show together that time is really not in issue for me anymore. I think the biggest challenge of only having a week can sometimes be getting the cast to realize that they can do it!” added Taylor.

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Jenison is blessed with a robust theatre community that values the arts, and our guests felt that warm reception immediately, making their job all the more enjoyable and meaningful.

“Jenison is a shining example of how theatre is good for kids. It also teaches them so much. Things like ACT and great directors (Todd Avery and Karen Weaver) really help kids realize just how much you can do with creative minds,” said Preston-Joseph.

Taylor adds, “I love the confidence that we are able to help kids find in themselves. We come into a town with no prejudices against any kid, we don’t know their history and we therefore have every confidence in them to be able to do what we ask them to do.

…For the most part, when a kid realizes that you have confidence in them, they get confidence in themselves and realize not only that they can do it, but that they are actually very good at it, and are totally capable of doing incredible things in just one week. And if they’re capable of that, what else are they capable of that they haven’t tried yet?” 

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“Theatre teaches us to open our eyes and really see who we are as a person and what we have to offer to the world. That is why theatre is important to me and why I think it’s especially important for the young,” explained Preston-Joseph.

We offer our sincere thanks to Preston-Joseph and Taylor for the creative leadership they provided our young actors; we also express our gratitude to Mr. Avery and Mrs. Weaver for the support they offered to the Missoula Children’s Theatre. Working together, they found magical ways to inspire young minds with the arts.

Hansel & Gretel, Missoula Children's Theatre, Jenison Public SchoolsIf you wish to order your own photos of this special night, please visit and click on “gallery”.

Jenison High School Thespians Present “Singin’ In The Rain”

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What happens when a love triangle unfolds onstage amidst lies, deception, and desperate women? The umbrellas and rainslickers come out, of course, because the inevitable love connection ends with some singing in the rain!

With a stage slathered in three coats of polyurethane, our Jenison Thespians have a surprise in store for ticket holders next week! (hint: there’s a reason for the rainslickers!) Stage hands and actors alike have been tap dancing and singing their way to this moment since last summer, taking lessons and receiving specialized instruction to help them live into their characters more fully.

“Going into this musical I knew that everyone would have to put in more effort than before. My devotion to theater was great before, but Singin’ In The Rain requires a new level of commitment,” explained Ben.

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“This is the most technically difficult and biggest dance show we’ve ever done. Three years ago I never would’ve even considered doing this show. There are so many different scenes — everything is one wheels — being flexible is so important, but these kids are ready,” said teacher Mr. Avery.

Stage Manager KendraVeldt is Mr. Avery’s righthand-woman as he preps for the biggest show of his career. Her job is to oversee everybody — the crew and cast — making sure that fans, umbrellas, lights, boots, and sets are in just the right place…at just the right time.

“Getting people to listen to my instruction, even though we’re the same age, is my biggest challenge. It’s also tough to make sure everyone’s on the same page — that other crew members get Mr. Avery’s directions and notes and deliver on each need.”

Jenison High School, Singin' In The Rain, Jenison ThespiansWith leads comprised of juniors (Katherine Searcy, Jenna Bassett) and seniors (Ben Avery, Matt Wadsworth), this quartet has never been more ready to put on a show worthy to be called a Gene Kelly reprise. They also want to do their hall-of-fame teacher proud.

“The whole show is packed with energy! My character is trying to be a stage actress…at one point I pop out of a cake and that’s pretty exciting!” said Katherine.

“This role combines everything,” explained Matt. “Dancing, singing, and memorizing lines pose unforeseen hurdles. It’s like a puzzle that I have to put together.”

“Getting the courage to sing in front of my peers has been most challenging and intimidating, but also incredibly rewarding,” Jenna shared.

Join us next week for our last spring play in the Jenison High School Auditorium!

Playing Nightly, March 20-24 at 7 pm

For more information about Singin’ in the Rain, please click HERE to view the Jenison High School Thespian’s website.

Theatre Teacher Todd Avery Welcomed into Michigan Thespian Hall of Fame

Todd Avery, William Waalkes, Tom Dracht, Michigan Thespians Hall of Fame

Todd Avery (center) pictured with parent volunteer and stage creator Tom Dracht (L) and JPS Board President William Waalkes (R)

In his wildest dreams, Todd Avery never imagined that his passionate love for theatre or his pursuit of excellence on stage would have led to this: induction into the Michigan Thespian Hall of Fame. But as many will tell you, this driven, creative, imaginative, and inspiring leader deserves nothing less.

This past fall, while his thespian troupe performed at a 2-day festival in Saginaw, Todd was unanimously voted into an exclusive group of the best theatre teachers identified over the past twenty years in the state of Michigan.

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Mr. Erik Hart congratulates Mr. Todd Avery

Michigan Educational Theatre Association chapter director Erik Hart made the trip from Sterling Heights to formally honor Todd at the January JPS Board Meeting. During his visit, he also outlined the qualifications that the association looks for when nominating a new inductee:

  • a new nominee must have at least 15 years experience teaching theatre
  • (s)he must demonstrate artistic leadership
  • (s)he must have productions that are exemplary.

As part of Mr. Hart’s position as META chapter director, he has seen over one hundred productions and noted that Todd’s are consistently the best he’s seen.

Jenison High School’s 2012 production of Elephant Man is just one example of Mr. Avery’s spectacular work with our young actors. After being adjudicated by theatre professionals from the Educational Theatre Association, the cast was recommended for a performance at the International Thespian Festival this June in Nebraska! (details on this honor coming in a future blog post)

“I was very excited and surprised by not only my nomination but at the award as well.  Winning accolades for myself is not why I went into this field.  I have looked up to the theatre teachers on the list of former recipients for years and, due to their encouragement and influence, have made myself and my program better.  It’s funny, but I still don’t see myself on “their level”, but I will put my students and the JHS theatre program up against any program in Michigan.  We have something very special going on here in Jenison,” Todd said.

Mr. Hart praised Mr. Avery by saying that good teachers do more than just teach. They inspire.

“I’ve seen students from other districts who see Todd’s productions go home inspired. They leave and want their own school to do as well. You don’t see that very often.”

But Mr. Avery, clearly moved by the accolades, was quick to turn the focus back to his students.

“Our cast of Elephant Man was just awesome. They basically ran the show and I got to sit back and watch a thing of beauty. The kids came together, got things done, and helped each other under a tight, tight deadline. I felt like a proud father seeing it all work seamlessly. It was amazing. It was the proudest moment in my entire life.”

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Nebraska bound!

“Festival of Plays” Highlights Student Talent

Last week, the JHS Thespian Troupe put their best under a much-deserved spotlight when they showcased three student-selected and student-directed plays. “How to Succeed in High School Without Really Trying” by Jonathan Rand, “Theory of Mind” by Ken LaZebnik, and Selections from “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani were chosen and conceptualized last spring, rehearsed this summer, and performed just days into the new school year.

Now in his 16th year of producing the Festival, theatre teacher Todd Avery beams like a proud father at the success of his students. He smiles at the admission of his young actors that directing is a very difficult but very rewarding experience, knowing full well the rigors of putting on  plays and musicals himself.  Yet the struggle is part of the growing, and these students are doing just that: working hard, attaining personal goals, and reshaping dreams. Mr. Avery is aware of about a dozen former student-directors who have left JPS and gone on to direct, write, or teach in other theater programs or professional companies. “I couldn’t be happier with the process or how well it works,” he said.

When interested students approach Mr. Avery expressing interest in participating in Festival (in this case, last May), he underscores the importance of selecting a quality script. If student-directors need help finding something relevant and of interest to them, Mr. Avery points to them to various resources that might prove helpful and thought-provoking. In the end though, it’s their choice to make under the guidance and approval of their teacher.

Mr. Avery also spends a great deal of time considering the students wishing to direct. He takes into account their work ethic, how they deal with pressure, what kind of leadership skills they possess, and their level of attention to detail. This year he expressed that, “…These were three of the best scripts I’ve ever had proposed for Festival. All three sets of directors were top-notch theatre kids and knew what they were doing. I was VERY proud of the results!”

Next week begins another chapter on the Jenison stage: auditions for the fall play “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, which debuts the week prior to Thanksgiving. Adding to the excitement is that the show has already been accepted to be performed at the Michigan Thespian Festival on December 1 at Saginaw Valley State University! Performing here provides the troupe with the opportunity to be adjudicated with the hopes of being chosen to perform at the “Broadway” of high school theatre, the International Thespian Festival taking place in June on the campus of the University of Nebraska.

In December, auditions for “Singin’ in the Rain” open up in preparation for March’s musical performance. Mr. Avery notes that–yes–there will indeed be rain on the stage during the show, and that it will be a great way to wrap up the years of history and art that have unfolded in the current auditorium. “Singin’ in the Rain” will be the final production by Jenison theatre students on the old stage before the unveiling of the highly anticipated Fine Arts Center slated to open in late 2013.

The Jenison Theatre Program continues to gain notoriety and praise because of the hard work, dedication, and passionate pursuit of excellence displayed by Mr. Avery and his apprentices. “I feel incredibly blessed to work with such wonderful, talented kids in a district that truly values the arts. It is a dream come true!”

To that we can only rise to our feet and ask for years of encores from a man who truly inspires. Bravo!