MAPLEWOOD, NJ - If you visit a rehearsal at Maplewood Middle School (MMS) for their spring musical, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, you'll find the usual bustle of students practicing scenes on stage, working on sets and props, and for those who have downtime, doing their homework in the auditorium seats.

While at first-glance this description may sound similar to that of many other school musicals, there is one aspect of the MMS musical you're unlikely to find other places, and that is the role of students as Assistant Directors (ADs).

The AD program was started about six years ago by Maureen O'Sullivan, who is one of four directors (the other directors are Rich Palmgren, Dallas Duffey, and Regina Bradshaw) of the musical as well as an MMS Language Arts teacher. O'Sullivan explained that one student showed an interest in directing, and the program grew from there.

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MMS students in all grades are eligible to audition to be ADs, and in addition to the middle school ADs, there are Columbia High School (CHS) students assisting with the musical's production as well.

O'Sullivan said that she thought it was important to have students in all grades participate as ADs. "It's all part of the experience for students to learn to work with, and take direction from, students who might be older or younger than themselves," said O'Sullivan.

Having ADs help with everything from blocking scenes to choosing costumes has been a positive experience for both the students, and the teacher-directors who are in charge of the production, shared O'Sullivan. "We’ve learned kids can really run with it and do a great job. At first we were worried it might impact the final production but that hasn't been the case at all.”

"It's a very collaborative environment," said O'Sullivan, adding, "the ADs really pitch in to help with everything." 

"We've found that students of 11, 12, 13 and 14 years of age are more than capable of blocking scenes, creating complex choreography, designing and building sets, costumes, and props," said O'Sullivan.

This year, one of the CHS students working on the musical, David Goetz, was also one of the very first middle school student ADs. When he was in his first year of being an AD, he had a role in the cast in addition to his AD responsibilities.

David, who is currently a CHS junior, said that one of the many positive aspects of the experience is getting to stay connected to MMS. David's contributions include helping with the music and choreographing dance sequences, and he said while the musical is a significant time commitment, with rehearsals every day in the final weeks leading up to the performances, he is glad to be part of "this unique program."

All together, 150 students make the MMS musical possible, and many of the ADs are former cast members, some who shared that they choose to be part of the AD program, instead of being in the cast, because they wanted to try something new.

For ADs like eighth-grader Mila Kisch who have experienced the production from both sides of the curtain, opening night backstage as an AD is very different from being a performer on stage. As Mila explained, as an AD, "it's not only opening night, it's everything you worked on, coming together on stage."

Another AD, Jesse Cherins, who is in eighth-grade, shared that he made the switch because while he loved acting, he also wanted to create and block scenes, and "expand the experience" of being part of the musical.

For seventh-grade AD Galia Koonyevsky, "she wanted to do something different," after being a cast member. "I wanted to experience stage management, and it's cool that the school offers it."

Four of the MMS students who are responsible for the production's costumes -- seventh-grader Bridget Heindl and eighth-graders Rupert Muson, Maeve Tuohy and Katherine Turi -- explained that they work together to make costuming decisions and to divide the work so everything can get done. One of the challenges for the costume department is finding the right sizes and "matching costumes to the person." 

Even the poster for the MMS musical is created through a student-centric process. First, explained O'Sullivan, members of the art crew submit their designs, with the winning design chosen by popular vote from the group. The final poster is created by a graphic designer, who only made minimal changes to the student's original artwork.

The MMS musical will have three performances this weekend: Friday, Feb. 23, and Saturday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available here, but premium and VIP seats are sold-out.

All performances are in the Maplewood Middle School auditorium at 7 Burnet St., in Maplewood.

For more information, click here.