Every trimester, for the past nine years, Jason Lemire and his middle school drama students have begun the rehearsal process the same way, with a brainstorming session on a dry-erase board. From these brainstorming sessions, the students of St. Anne's Episcopal School have created over 25 original productions, performed for an audience that has come to expect great things. From raucous comedies, to social satires, to an original musical written in partnership with the global non-profit Girl Rising, there is no limit to the scope of these student productions. With a drama program that now extends all the way down to Kindergarten, St. Anne’s has emerged as a leader in Denver’s independent school landscape for providing engaging and original student theater experiences. On September 12, Jason Lemire, the school’s 4th – 8th Grade Drama Teacher, will accept the 2019 Elementary/Middle School Drama Teacher of the Year Award from the Colorado Thespians Association.
The first thing to know about Lemire’s theater program is that it is for everyone. Starting in 4th grade, drama is a compulsory part of every student’s curriculum, with lower school students building collaboration and improvisation skills in the first half of the year, and then performing a main-stage show in the spring. Starting in sixth grade, students enter the school’s long-standing art/drama/music rotation, with a trimester in each discipline. The rotation includes time in the art studio with Rick Sigler, the Colorado Art Educator Association’s 2015 Teacher of the Year. When Sigler received his award, he was praised for creating an environment where students felt free to express themselves. Similarly, Lemire has succeeded in developing a drama program that feels accessible and engaging to all. Rather than building his classes or productions around a few lead performers, Lemire designs his shows with the expressed goal of ensuring that every student has a substantial role, and every student feels responsible for the show’s success.
“Jason creates an environment that meets students where they are and, through his unwavering belief in each of them, pushes them where they want to go,” observes Lower School Head Katherine Huamani. And often, where the students want to go is somewhere unexpected. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see some of the school’s top athletes shedding their typical “personas” to transform themselves into unrecognizable characters, just as it’s not uncommon for otherwise shy and reserved students to deliver breakout performances that redefine not only how the community sees them, but how they see themselves. “Many performances have brought teachers and parents to tears, not just because of the story or incredible skill students demonstrate, but because of the realization of a flourishing level of confidence and self-esteem that previously seemed difficult to achieve in a particular student,” notes Huamani.Prior to joining St. Anne’s, Lemire worked in a variety of fields, from motivational speaking to managing a women’s soccer team. He credits these experiences with his belief that theater offers essential skills that are beneficial to everyone. Three experiences in particular helped to shape his teaching: a year as writer-in-residence with the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, two years spent teaching special education, and a summer with the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival. “I believe in the importance of giving young people a voice, I’ve seen how giving someone a voice can be transformative, and I also believe that storytelling has the power to change how people see the world.” By using theater as a vehicle for teaching his students empathy, listening, creativity and public speaking, Lemire believes that he is helping to prepare all of his students to thrive, not just the handful who will choose to pursue acting long term.
“I feel so grateful to teach at a school that values the work that we do here,” Lemire reflects, standing on the school’s beautiful new stage, where his student tech crew has already started planning the set for the fall show. “Half the ideas on the brainstorm board this year I didn’t even understand. But I know there’s a show in there. There always is. I can’t wait for the students to help me figure it out.”