Lake Howell High students help local kids experience the magic of the theater
Lake Howell High School’s drama department has a long-standing tradition of bringing the enchanting world of live theater to young audiences. Every school year, the Lake Howell Theatre Company (LHTC) buses in up to 800 kids from local elementary schools to watch an entertaining children’s show – all at no cost to the students or their schools.
Mari Ramos, a senior at Lake Howell, was one of those children years ago. Now, she is one of the dedicated drama students who bring make-believe worlds to life for youngsters who were just like her.
“I was one of those kids, and now I’m here,” says Mari, who saw a Dr. Seuss show at Lake Howell when she was a student at English Estates Elementary School. “It means a lot to us to keep doing this, because it’s like magic on stage for little kids.”
This year’s LHTC play was the literary classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis and adapted by Don Quinn. Two daytime performances were offered for elementary students on January 24. The shows kicked off with a fun, pre-show singalong of tunes from popular animated movies and ended with cast members bidding farewell to the kids as they boarded buses back to their respective schools. In addition, nighttime shows for general audiences were presented on January 24 and 25.
Tiffany Ortiz, Lake Howell’s theater director, says the funding for the buses comes from a School Advisory Council grant and from Lake Howell’s own budget. The children’s theater outreach program was started by Tiffany’s predecessor, James Brendlinger, in 2001 and has been going strong ever since. Tiffany, an alumnus of Lake Howell, is thrilled to carry on the tradition started by James, who was her theater teacher.
“It’s such an awesome experience for these children,” Tiffany says, “Watching the kids and hearing their reactions – they are truly engaged. This is something that is really special to our school.”
The elementary schools that are invited to attend the children’s shows are all feeder schools to Lake Howell High: Casselberry, Eastbrook, English Estates, Red Bug, Sterling Park, and Rainbow. For many of the young attendees, these field trips are their first visit to Lake Howell High and often their initial exposure to live theater, too.
Like her classmate Mari, Laura Powalisz recalls coming to Lake Howell to see a show when she was little. Laura, who attended Red Bug Elementary, clearly remembers seeing The Little Mermaid.
“I loved it,” says Laura, a senior and the vice president of Lake Howell’s thespian troupe. “I thought it was so cool. The actor who played Sebastian the crab was really funny, and the girl who played Ursula the villainess seemed so evil, and she could really sing.”
Both Mari and Laura have been involved with the LHTC’s annual children’s productions since they were freshmen. Besides The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they have worked on Snow White, Seussical Junior, and Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.
“Most of the shows have a little lesson in them while also making the kids laugh,” Laura says. “So, the students can take something away from it.”
This year, a new component was added to the children’s program to make an impact on even more kids. Lake Howell’s American Sign Language (ASL) students signed the entire production from the stage – right beside the actors in many scenes – which made them an integral part of the show.
Tiffany and ASL teacher Rebecca Kunos were excited about their students teaming up for the first time for a Lake Howell play, and they hope their newfound partnership will continue.
“We wanted to make our production more inclusive to all children and adults,” Tiffany says. “Theater should be for all people, and that includes those who are differently-abled.”
James, who was Lake Howell’s theater director for 21 years, now runs his own theater – Penguin Point Productions at the Oviedo Mall. He has fond memories of Lake Howell High School’s children’s theater shows, the first of which was The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.
“One of the most rewarding parts of the program for my students was when the elementary kids would send packages of thank-you notes after seeing the show, often with poignant or hilarious illustrations of the play they had just seen,” James says. “Those drawings are among my most prized possessions – and I know many of my graduates feel the same way. Looking back, it’s one of the things I’m most proud to have been a part of, and I’m so glad that Tiffany Ortiz is continuing the tradition and bringing her own flair to it.”
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