There are veritable beacons of light in Centre County, places that are progressive, unique, and simply wonderful aspects of our community.
As paradoxical as it is to use the word progressive to describe a public school, the Delta Program in the State College Area School District is as close as we get in Centre County. One of the ways it inches toward progression is via the arts, led by performing arts teacher Leah Mueller, who will present “Once On this Island Jr.” at Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.
“I have been running the theater program since (the program’s) second year,” Mueller wrote in an email. “Since I have been running it, we have put on a musical every January. At Delta we develop the curriculum based on student interest and teachers’ passions.”
Student interest and teachers are at the heart of the selection and performance of this particular musical, which is a Caribbean adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Students were asked to complete a writing assignment about the musical’s message, which led to the composition of a Wordle using the terms that most frequently came up in the students writing.
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“I love that the biggest words are ‘love, forgiveness, and story,’ ” Mueller said. “I think this captures the essence of the tale well.”
As if those heartfelt explorations and preparations weren’t enough, the follow-up to the writing assignment connects to the final song of the show, during which the entire cast sings directly to the audience in an attempt to vocally manifest lasting positivity through the law of intention and desire.
“At the end of the show,” Mueller said, “the whole company sings to the audience: ‘So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow. It will help your heart remember and relive. It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow ... and forgive. For out of what we live and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave.’ ”
It’s a beautiful message, and to imagine a stage full of middle school kids embodying the message in song, communicating it directly to a potentially packed house of people is a bit surreal, and is a testament to the kids, the school, the school district and the community, but also the quiet leadership and passion of a very special teacher.
“This is a message that we all need dearly today,” Mueller said. “Our actions matter and it is important to be gentle with each other and show forgiveness so that we’re proud of the stories that we live each day.”
Mueller is a State High graduate who perpetually exudes optimism and authenticity, particularly regarding her role as a performing arts educator and as a mentor and role model for her students.
“I first wanted to become a music teacher, because my middle school music teacher directed our school musicals,” Mueller said. “Now I get to put on shows with my own students and the whole thing has come full circle. It feels like a dream come true. I am so proud of my students.”
While Mueller leads the students in the classroom and as a producer and director, she also leads by example as the star of a slew of local musical acts such as Leah Mueller and Her Rhythm, as well as various shows by Fuse Productions, both of which she feels complement her work as an educator and, of course, her desire to help students develop a sense of personal and civic virtue through the arts.
“One thing that I feel is really important as a teacher is to ‘walk the walk,’ ’ Mueller wrote. “I ask my students to sing and dance, to put themselves out there and to be vulnerable onstage. I cannot say enough how important it is for young people to be involved in the arts. First and foremost, it is the best form of empathy education. To have students experiment with what it is like to try on other characters and spend a few hours to understand their motivations, hopes, and fears is transformative.”
If you go
What: “Once On This Island Jr.”
When: 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Schwab Auditorium, University Park