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Sugar House Journal

Hillside’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ brings magic to the lives of middle school students

Mar 11, 2020 13h45 ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Cameron Skiby (Gaston) and Sam Limberg (LeFou) are surrounded by students playing villagers in a scene from “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” (Photo courtesy of Nate Holcomb)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

There’s more magic to “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” than just a talking teapot.

That was definitely the case with Hillside Middle School’s recent production of the classic Disney musical, which ran Feb. 19 through 24 at the school. Though the show is full of talking furniture, teacher Nate Holcomb said that the really enchanted thing about the school’s annual musical is the effect it has on the students who participate in it. 

“It gives the kids something to be proud of,” he said. “It gives them a sense of identity, and it gives them a safe place. There are a lot of changes going on in middle school, and this gives them the chance to let their freak flag fly without judgment.”

It also gives them the chance to interact with other kids who are also experiencing the freedom of having their own safe spaces.

“They get excited about meeting all different kinds of people,” Holcomb said. “They get to connect with people they wouldn’t connect with during their normal middle school life.” 

Just as importantly, it gives them the means to reach out to those other students in a way they might not have on their own. 

“It’s a day and age when kids don’t learn to talk to each other,” he said. “They communicate through their keyboards. Theater gives the kids the opportunity to learn to communicate with each other (face to face).” 

This is especially true with “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” which Holcomb said breaks through a lot of common Disney stereotypes. In addition to a leading lady who is smart and refuses to fall into an easy but unhealthy romantic relationship, the leading man has to go through more of an emotional journey than most.

 “(The Beast) has to be vulnerable,” he said. “He has to expose what he’s feeling, and let someone fall in love with him and vice versa.”

This is an important lesson for middle school kids, but it’s not always easy. 

“Getting kids to explore their feelings at this age can be really, really challenging,” he said. 

Still, Holcomb doesn’t worry about challenges. With this production, he feels that the most challenging aspect is also the most exciting.  

“I’m working with 200 children who are all excited and have questions and deserve to feel important, and I have to keep that under control,” he said. 

To help all those kids feel important, no matter what role they’re playing, he transforms the performing space into an area that helps as many students shine as possible. 

“I turn the whole auditorium into the stage,” he said. “I wrap the audience around the outside. We’re in the aisles. We build stairs. It’s a puzzle, but the goal is to make sure the kids are seen as much as possible.” 

He also makes sure that all of his students get the chance to perform for their loved ones. Originally, he’d planned on doing “Frozen” as this year’s musical, but a last minute difficulty with the seating led him to choose “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” instead. 

“We were going to be approved for it, but Disney came back and said I could only sell a limited number of tickets,” he said. “It wasn’t nearly enough to let all the parents come see the show.”

Younger siblings are also in the audience, inspiring the participants of future Hillside Middle School musicals.

“Word gets out in the community, so they get excited about (being part of the production) in elementary school,” he said. 

No matter what musical Hillside is performing, however, Holcomb said that the production always involves more than the students and even the people in the audience. 

“Everybody comes together to make this production happen,” he said. “Parents, teachers, and even local businesses get involved. It’s a whole community-wide event.”