The biggest alumni events at St. Anne’s Episcopal School, an independent K-8 institution that sprawls across a giant grassy block in Denver’s University neighborhood, are not elaborate galas or rivalry lacrosse games. What draws former students back, year after year, are the middle school theater shows—often politically savvy musicals, hilarious historical parodies, or intricate sci-fi dramas.
The mastermind behind these productions is St. Anne’s drama teacher, Jason Lemire, an ardent advocate of the arts and a champion for adolescents whose “enthusiasm is contagious,” says Sumant Bhat, St. Anne’s head of middle school. Shortly after the 2019-20 school year kicked off, Colorado Thespians Association awarded Lemire statewide recognition as Elementary/Middle School Drama Teacher of the Year.
“He will never underestimate what kids are capable of. And the kids respond to that,” says Bhat, who nominated Lemire for the teaching award earlier this spring. “They remember the kind of bonds they formed while making these productions.”
An Arts-Integrated Approach
Lemire’s productions are so impactful because his approach to theater is so unconventional. At St. Anne’s, art is a fundamental part of the curriculum and three different disciplines—drama, music, and visual arts—are integrated directly into middle school students’ schedules.
Each grade is split into three groups and the students spend one trimester on each subject before rotating to the next. When students file into Lemire’s drama class, they know exactly what they’re in for: not just reciting lines from a screenplay, but actually creating a playscript and practicing improvisation, sharpening public speaking, taking new perspectives, building empathy, and flexing creativity muscles.
Every trimester, Lemire writes a brand-new play with the kids. In the past nine years, he’s produced more than two dozen original productions. “What I’ve found is that the best way to get the kids excited about the play is to write the show with them,” he says.
Students work on brainstorming character ideas, themes, and plots. Lemire then takes the meat of their discussions and uses a playwriting software to ensure each student gets a minimum amount of spoken words. That way, everyone is meaningfully included in the final production, and all students get the opportunity to shine.
“My motivation in terms of crafting shows that showcase as many kids as possible is that I want to help everybody find their strengths,” he says. “When it comes to preparing kids to thrive, theater offers more practical and transferable skills than just about any other extracurricular activity you will find. Being able to improvise, feeling comfortable public speaking, understanding new perspectives, flexing empathy and creativity, “those are the skills that we need to thrive and to solve the problems that we have in the world,” Lemire says. “The complex problems that we’re facing as a species—as much as they’re technological—they’re emotional, they’re philosophical, they’re political, they’re cultural. Theater teaches you to grapple with those.”
Lemire himself found his strength through time on the stage, even though he wasn’t a natural performer from the beginning. He grew up in New Jersey as a shy, socially awkward kid.
“I ate lunch in the art room by myself, basically for three straight years of middle school,” he says. Though he eventually grew more social through team sports, it wasn’t until later in high school when friends dragged him into theater that he found self-confidence and, eventually, a voice in the world.
After high school, Lemire entered college at Middlebury to pursue soccer and creative writing. It wasn’t until his junior year that he changed his major to theater and returned to drama. After graduating, he worked as a soundboard operator for the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival and then as a special education specialist at his former high school. It was while working with children with Down syndrome that his love for teaching drama came full circle. “It was really important for me to see you can really make theater for everybody.”
He and his wife eventually moved to California and, from there, landed in Denver when the drama teacher position at St. Anne’s opened up. Lemire fit right in.
Fostering Culturally Relevant Experiences
In Lemire’s class, Bhat says, “The greatest value are the daily conversations. He ran this great production about stereotypes and privilege, and the daily conversations that he had with kids leading up to it was, I would argue, more important than the actual production itself.”
This fusion of real life and imaginary play has become Lemire’s specialty, influenced by his personal past experiences and informed by the new perspectives each trimester of students bring. His theater classes foster an inclusive environment where every student can find and build upon their strengths.
“He lets all kids know that their voice matters and that they should feel confident in their voice,” Bhat says. “Our kids are learning about really important skills and topics through the arts, and that’s invaluable.”
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