HOXIE — The performers sat in a semi-circle on the stage as the musical director typed lyrics on a laptop sitting on top of his piano.
“That’s great, Jazlyn, that’s so good,” he said as he typed up a suggestion from one of the performers. They watched his typing on their phones through a shared document, suggestions for lines flying across the stage as the song began to take shape.
This wasn’t a Broadway theater in New York, or any other large city one might associate with creating musical theater, but rather the stage in Hoxie High School’s auditorium, and the performers are teenagers from the town of about 1,200 and Goodland, Dresden Lincoln, and Windsor, Colo.
In six days last week, the 11 students of the Lovewell Institute for the Performing Arts workshop in Hoxie wrote an original one-act musical, with the kids themselves creating the story, the characters and music with the help of Lovewell’s staff and interns.
Saturday night, in front of family, friends and community members, they performed their show, “Soul Responsibility: An Original Musical,” a story of an abandoned, haunted theater being brought back to life.
This week, the Lovewell staff will be in Phillipsburg to do it all again with a new group of students. In following weeks, they’ll be in Russell, Goodland, and Concordia and will wrap up in Salina — where the institute got its start in 1987 by David Spangler in the Salina school district.
Last year was the first time the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based organization returned to Kansas in at least a decade, Tyler Grimes, managing director of Lovewell, said. In 2018, workshops were in Phillipsburg, Concordia, Russell and Colby. The workshops are underwritten by the Dane G. Hansen Foundation of Logan.
While workshops in other areas allow several weeks for the students to create a full production, the one-week Kansas workshops allow them to reach more kids.
“We’re able to do it in a way to serve as many students as possible without it being too financially overbearing for them or for us,” Grimes said.
It helps them reach rural areas, too, said Lovewell Musical Director Michael Finke, who is a musical theater composer in New York City the rest of the year.
“A lot of the programs are in cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Lauderdale. But by doing the one-weeks in several towns in northwest Kansas, it gives more kids access to it so they don’t have to drive three hours a day,” he said.
Rounding out the staff are interns Anna Hahn from Stockton, a recent musical theater performance graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, and Katie Messeria, a public relations major at Kansas State University. Bonnie Cameron, a Hoxie vocal coach with a background in opera, is the local on site administrator.
The Lovewell staff comes to the workshops with a blank slate, letting the students take the lead in creating the show by starting with a brainstorming circle on the first day.
“It just cascades from there into this beautiful thing we have here,” Grimes said.
“Our philosophy is why get handed the script when you can write the script, and that gives a brand-new level of ownership for the students,” he said.
The students take part in all aspects of the production including writing and set design, Messeria said.
“It doesn’t matter if they think writing is the worst, they get to try it and see what’s that like. Everybody has an equal opportunity to wear all of those hats,” she said.
That work has benefits that will go far beyond the stage, Grimes said.
“Whether or not our students go off into the arts, they’re getting skills here that are replicable wherever they go,” he said.
“This is just becoming a better collaborator, because you’re being forced to hang out with people maybe you’ve never met before, you haven’t worked together before, you have different levels of experience, different areas of expertise,” he said.
The students agreed cooperation is the biggest thing they’re learning.
“It takes a lot of different ideas and suggestions to get to one place, so everybody’s really important,” Jaylei Sloan, Hoxie, said.
“It teaches you to divide the work between everybody somewhat evenly. We take turns writing scenes and then writing songs. Right now, we have three songs getting writing at once plus two scenes,” Blaine Achesen, Windsor, Colo., said.
“Critical thinking becomes essential as well, and problem solving as you go, which is one of the most universal life skills,” Finke said.
The goal of the Lovewell Institute is to provide students a transformational experience through creativity. Masseria said it’s something she saw in just the handful of days of working with the Hoxie students.
“Even in the days we’ve been here, we’ve seen people who didn’t speak up just take the stage and say ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do,’ and really take the lead and build that confidence that will carry them for a long time,” she said.
“You have to come together to do this, because at the end, there’s going to be a musical, we’re going to have to perform it. And in 30 years of doing this, it’s never failed once,” Grimes said.