From October to April the Hilltown Drama Club (formally the Heath School Drama Club) makes its home at the Hawlemont School in Charlemont MA. Our Theatre Enrichment Program serves students from all nine towns that comprise the Mohawk Trail Regional School District (MTRSD), all four of its elementary schools as well as students from neighboring schools districts (e.g., Rowe, Greenfield and Turners.) Our campuses are nestled among old orchards and pastureland at the outer reaches of the Pioneer Valley. The rural setting, while idyllic, limits access to affordable arts education. Our towns comprise the largest geographic school district in the state, and the poorest. With two thirds of our students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the Hilltown Drama Club provides access to arts and music education that many families can’t otherwise reach.
Performers embrace every element of the dramatic process from set building and design to music and choreography to acting and playwriting. Our approach is multi-disciplinary incorporating puppets, shadow screens, mask making, movement, physical training and work on spools and other large apparatus. The school’s playing field is home to our flying trapeze in autumn and spring where it’s used for the elementary school residency, seasonal recovery intensives, community-flying lessons and to provide additional paid internship opportunities for our college bound Recovery Theatre and Summer Workshop ensemble members. Seven aerial fabrics (circus silks) hang from the rafters of the Heath School gymnasium and all-school space where our performances take place. Similar to the summer Workshop, audience and performers journey together throughout the building from scene to scene. Over the last ten years, the drama program has unexpectedly evolved into a wonderful local tradition among students, their families and the broader community—with each of the annual performances garnering standing room only crowds from Heath, Charlemont and the hilltowns beyond.
In addition to fostering a lifelong love of the arts, faculty have found students benefit academically as a result of their participation in drama, improving their reading skills and their test scores in the language arts. Our youngest thespian is five and our oldest twelve. Every season as many as eighteen middle and high school aged student-volunteers, members of the Summer Workshop and Recovery Theatre we affectionately refer to as “Arts Angels,” join us at different times on the set to assist with the production.
The Theatre Enrichment Program provides these talented older students with a residency experience that provides them stipends and the possibility of year-round employment in the local arts economy. And mentoring younger children helps teens develop compassion, empathy and leadership skills. Barbara Kingsolver observed that mothers parent from the bottom up. We nurture and shepherd the charges in our programs and productions in the same fashion, and teach our students to do the same. Images from the students’ training and performances show a vibrant, educational community that is invested in environmental stewardship, community collaboration and mentorship of the next generation of theater artists, global citizens and leaders.