For the longest time, 11-year-old Arizona Newton tried in vain to get all of her friends to act out plays with her while her mom recorded them. She's so happy she doesn't have to do that anymore.

Anza Trail School now has its own drama club, Coyote Curtain Call. 

For the past few months, a handful of Walden Grove High School intermediate and advanced drama students and their instructor, Ben Lebovitz, have been spending their Monday and Tuesday afternoons at Anza Trail helping develop the thespian skills of students in fifth- through eighth-grades.

On Dec. 4-5, the students will perform "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Redemption of Gertie Greene" in Anza Trail's cafeteria. Helping out was entirely the idea of Walden Grove's drama students.

"We were having a talk and we wanted to figure out a way to introduce theater to kids earlier on and so we decided a good way to do that would be to sponsor a middle school drama club, middle and fifth grade," junior Calvin Kramkowski said.

The students drew up a proposal and obtained permission from administrators at Walden Grove and Anza Trail. Gabby Perry, the middle school art teacher who had been thinking about starting a drama club, agreed to sponsor it.

Nearly 40 students showed up for the initial meeting and Lebovitz quickly realized they'd have to put on more than one performance at a time because of the sheer numbers. Some of the students had zero experience, a few had performed in school or church skits and one or two had acted professionally.

There was a lot of discussion about which plays the students wanted to perform. Someone even suggested Shakespeare's "Mary Beth," Lebovitz said. They ultimately decided on Alice and Gertie Greene.

"Alice is a more comedically focused play whereas Gertie Greene is more focused on serious acting," 16-year-old Andrew Cohn said. "The kids who wanted to dip their toe into the more dramatic, they were the ones who volunteered to do Gertie Greene, and the ones who were more interested in just having a good time and doing a comedic play were drawn to Alice."

The high schoolers were expecting lackadaisical. They were stunned to find a group of dedicated, talented overachievers. All of their students show up at every practice and learned their lines early and well.

"These plays are driven all by acting and not so much by blocking, and seeing how much inflection and character the students bring to the stage amazes me every time," said Nevah Hurtado, the 16-year-old director of Gertie Green. "A lot of people memorized their lines like really fast, which was also really cool, and they put in just so much effort into their character. I'm just amazed by them."

The middle schoolers not only come up with excellent ideas, they're willing to try new things.

"Some of the ways they say certain lines I would never have thought to say them that way and it’s really interesting and it brings a lot of life to the story," said Katrina Barraza, a 16-year-old junior.

Lebovitz said high schoolers "kind of develop a filter in their brain, they don’t express themselves, both vocally or physically, the way that they want sometimes. They feel like someone is watching them and they have to behave a certain way. But often times in middle school they haven’t picked up that mask yet so they’re very raw or they’re very real."

At the beginning and end of every rehearsal, the Walden Grove students lead the students in a game designed to enhance certain skills — eye contact, voice projection or emulating emotions.

Isabella Espinoza, 10, said the games have helped her get over her fear of speaking in front of people.

"My mom said the club would be fun, but I wasn't sure if this was really the right thing for me," she said. "But I do like it because it's challenging and I like memorizing lines."

Lebovitz said the high school students have become better performers throughout the process. 

Cohn said he could never have imagined becoming a teacher, but seeing the Anza Trail students twice a week is the highlight of his week.

The kids look forward to seeing the Walden Grove students, too, Perry said.

"They adore you guys. They’re excited to see you guys. They know you guys now and they appreciate what you guys do. They look up to you guys, you are their role models now," she told them.

Karysa Serna, 15, said she thinks the Anza Trail students are comfortable with them because they can relate to each other. In fact, the Walden Grove students are getting ready to put on a play of their own. On Nov. 8-9, the students are performing "Puffs; or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic."

As for the future, most of the high school drama students said they'd love to pursue careers in the arts but know that's not generally practical. 

Hurtado said she plans to go into design and marketing; Barraza said she'd like to become a marine biologist; and Cohn said that maybe he'll go into "weapons development, something more secure."

Perry said the program has been a success.

"It was really a great thing to bring to the middle school level because a lot of these kids need an outlet that they’re not getting in any other way shape or form, not through the visual arts, not through music, not through the sports. Kids need something like this to be able to express themselves," Perry said.

Newton, a fifth-grader, will be playing the Pigeon and Footman 2 in "Alice in Wonderland." She hopes it's just the beginning.

"I'm hoping to be an actor in a really famous movie and to be a famous pop star, which is sort of related," she said. "Maybe I can sing in movies. I'm really not afraid of much."

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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