Energetic musical reviving SHS acting arts program
By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
Somerset High School and the arts: They go together like rama-lama-lama-ka-dinga-da-dinga-dong.
Or at least that’s been the case since Heather Massey stepped on campus. The choir, drama, and humanities teacher at the home of the Briar Jumpers, Massey has played a significant role in helping revitalize the
school’s arts program — with this weekend’s production of the beloved musical “Grease” as an on-stage incarnation of that success.
With a cast of almost 20 students and the backing of an arts-friendly administration — something that isn’t always a given in America’s public schools — “Grease” will showcase the acting and singing talents of Somerset’s youth. And even though the musical (and the movie based on it) both came out in the 1970s, the tale of young love in an American culture that existed more than half a century ago still resonates with high schoolers today.
“‘Grease’ is really popular,” said Massey, a local native in her first year teaching at Somerset High School after earning her degree in Music Education at Campbellsville University. “Everyone knows ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and everyone knows ‘We Go Together.’ ... When I was first hired here, there was a rumor started that we were doing ‘Grease’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ The kids were really excited about it. That made my job easy. When you choose a performance, you want to choose one the kids are going to be interested in.”
Of course, while the rumor turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, it was far from true at the time. SHS hasn’t staged a school-produced drama since the 1980s, according to school officials. Budding thespians at the school have gone without a program to nurture those talents for decades. That’s something Massey — and principal Wes Cornett, hired in the summer of 2011 — have set out to change.
“Mr. Cornett is a big supporter of the arts,” said Massey. “He said he wants to have a well-developed arts program. When I was hired I worked closely with the arts teacher and the band teacher to develop what we call ‘The Arts at Somerset High School.’ It envelopes all the arts — not just music, not just drama, but showcasing them all.
“We want to become a kind of beacon as a school that promotes the arts and performs at a high school level, but also encourages other schools and other entities to support the arts as well,” she added, noting that she’s discussed this idea with teachers in the county school system as well. “We want to make Pulaski County a place that showcases the arts.”
Not only that, but school officials would like to make Somerset High School’s W.B. Jones Auditorium the place to be for community arts events. Cornett noted that the auditorium has a proud history, but hasn’t been utilized as much as it could have been over time.
“For many, many years, W.B. Jones was the center of arts and humanities in the area. There was something going on weekly in the auditorium,” he said. “That’s my goal, to get that back. ... Our goal is to have up to two productions a year, and singing events as well as drama. That used to be very common.”
Of course, the old hall needs a makeover if it’s going to stand in the spotlight once again. Cornett plans on launching a drive to redo the auditorium’s lights, sound and anything else needed to bring it up-to-date.
“Acoustically, it’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It just needs a complete overhaul. We have a small, 3-channel (sound) board we use for assemblies. We’ll have to borrow one for the play, because we’ll need at least a 15-channel board.”
That’s the technical part. Turning students who had never done any acting at school before into Danny Zuko, Sandy Olsson, and the whole gang required a significant mindset shift.
“The most rewarding (part of all this) for me has been watching the kids’ mentality about the arts change,” said Massey. “When I first came, we had some kids who said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and I said that’s fine. Six months later, they come up to me and say they wish they stayed in class. Maybe the arts can be something they’d like to be a part of. It’s a pretty awesome thing to watch.”
The popularity of youth-oriented shows and movies like “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect” have played a role. Massey said the school plans on putting together an a capella group to do contemporary numbers much like in the film “Pitch Perfect” and a choir concert that spans decades, from the 1940s up to what’s currently on the radio.
The result is that the talent available in the school is coming out of the woodwork. “We have kids in choir who didn’t know they could sing, didn’t know they could act, and all we did was hold an audition and here they are,” she said. “... It’s been so rewarding to see kids in drama class who were totally in a shell, then be like, ‘Can I do this on stage?’ They just light up.”
In a school as small as Somerset, only a few hundred students strong, most kids have to wear lots of different hats — those in clubs, those in sports, those in the play are all the same kids. Thus working out a feasible schedule for the kids to do all these things has been one of Massey’s biggest challenges, but it’s a labor of love.
“I tell my kids I can’t be mad at you for being talented. I can’t be mad at you for wanting to do six things,” she said. “We do have kids spread out so far it’s been difficult to have them all at rehearsal. (Lead) Tyler Megargel does track, does DECA Club, does all these things.
“Besides that, everything has fallen into place when we’ve needed it do,” she continued. “I call my kids palm trees. They just bend. They don’t break, just bend. We’re going to look at the scheduling next year, and try to time it just right (for all participating students).”
Massey noted her appreciation for all the help she’s received here, from her family to the administration and teachers to the custodial staff — “There’s no way I could do any of this without the army of people I’ve had” — but her efforts have earned the respect of Cornett.
“Ms. Massey is amazing,” he said. “She’s been a blessing with all she’s brought to the school, to the district, and to the community.”
“Grease” takes the stage at W.B. Jones Auditorium Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11, with curtain at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults, $2 for students of any school (not just Somerset Independent Schools).
Massey got her start putting on plays at the Hal Rogers Boys & Girls Club in Science Hill, the first time she’d ever tried such an endeavor. Now she’s getting her first taste of what that’s like at the high school level. So far, it’s been everything she could have hoped for.
“This is my ideal dream job,” she said. “I get to do the music stuff, the drama stuff, the musical theater. It’s like the job you describe in college that you’d love to have one day but never think exists anywhere. It just dropped in my lap. It’s such a blessing. I thank God for this.”