SHERIDAN — When Grace Cannon was hired as a substitute teacher last spring, Tongue River Middle School Principal Jeff Jones had no ambitions to start a theater program at the school.
But when Cannon brought up the possibility of collaborating with the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center’s WYO PLAY program to create the school’s first drama club, the offer was too good to turn down, Jones said.
“So often we have kids searching for what their niche is in activities,” Jones said. “That’s part of what middle school is about, right? But, for our school, the opportunity to be involved in drama was just not something that was afforded to our students. Most of the adults are involved in other activities after school, and they don’t have any training in the performing arts. The training that Grace and the WYO Theater provided was above and beyond what we could have offered them otherwise.”
The Tongue River Middle School drama club, which culminated its season with a performance of “Folktales Around the Campfire” at the WYO in early March, is just one way the WYO Theater is hoping to give back to Sheridan County through its WYO PLAY education initiative, according to Cannon, the lead teaching artist for WYO PLAY.
WYO PLAY serves as an extension of the theater’s longstanding mission to be a “performing arts and education center,” Cannon said. Traditionally, the education piece has been addressed through offering afternoon matinees to students, but the theater saw an opportunity to branch out into the classrooms and meet students where they’re at.
“In the course of the last year, we’ve become engaged in implementing and carrying out that vision, and we’ve been having a ton of fun planning it out,” Cannon said.
WYO PLAY, which launched in September 2020, has offered three distinct programs for Sheridan County students this school year, Cannon said. It started with a “teaching artist residency” at Sagebrush and Woodland Park elementary schools, where artists visited the schools’ after-school programs to teach students about folktales through interactive storytelling.
Next, WYO PLAY expanded into middle school — and Sheridan County School District 1 — with the drama club at Tongue River Middle School. The club served five students in its inaugural year with more interested in joining next year, Jones said.
Currently, WYO PLAY is offering a Young Theatre Makers Ensemble for high school students. Beginning this month, ensemble members will meet every other Saturday morning to take part in master classes, scene studies, workshops and play readings, Cannon said. During the summer, ensemble members will gain experience both on and off stage through supporting the children’s spring musical and putting on their own production.
Cannon said the WYO PLAY programs have been widely embraced by students, teachers and parents so far.
“We’ve had some success, and the students have really engaged with the content and curriculum,” Cannon said. “Parents have been responding positively too, and we look forward to beefing it up soon.”
The next phase of WYO PLAY will involve expanding the existing programs into more schools next year, Cannon said. But Cannon also hopes to eventually expand to learners of all ages, including those long out of high school.
“I have so many ideas about what that could look like, even though I don’t have specifics yet,” Cannon said. “We hope to organize different types of workshops specifically for adults — potentially through partnering with other community organizations. We want to give adults an excuse to be playful with each other.”
Indeed, whether working with kids or adults, “play” is the operative word in WYO PLAY, Cannon said.
“The name kind of has a double meaning, because play is the thing you do in the theater with the sets and the costumes, right?” Cannon said. “But we also use the word in the sense of being playful and having fun. At the end of the day, those are the values we’re trying to share through this program.”