Last season, the Rising Star Project welcomed nearly one hundred students into The 5th Avenue Theatre to mount a full-scale production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. The theater also partnered with educators to bring nearly 2,000 students from over 20 local schools to see the production created by their peers. None of this would be possible without the dedication and support of our partner teachers. They make amazing things happen for students every day. This is a snapshot of one of them.
At six thirty-five in the morning on any given school day, you’ll find Heath Thompson in front of a heavy-eyed group of teenagers at Kent Meridian High School. It’s time for vocal warm-ups. Gradually, amid a couple of yawns and a few tired sighs, creaky voices give way to rising scales, arpeggios, and eventual melodies.
“It never feels natural to be singing so early in the morning,” laments Thompson. “But it teaches my students discipline—in a way nothing else could.” But he will admit that the coffee machine is as essential to the music department’s success as their piano.
This fall marks Thompson’s tenth year of predawn choir classes and music education in the Kent School District. It also marks the fifth year since he and his students first came in contact with the Rising Star Project. In the program’s first year, one of Thompson’s choir students was cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
“I remember him coming out onstage in his mutton chops as this old curmudgeon… And there was a great sense of pride. For him to be able to say he had stepped out on that stage, it meant so much. Being able to actually see him have that experience was… amazing.”
Thompson is eager to profess his love for his students and their unique school community. But, like so many educators, he struggles with the day-to-day realities of teaching in a community that many would label as underserved.
“Kent Meridian is the most diverse school in Washington State. And it is a high school that doesn’t have much of a musical theater program.” Thompson cites many factors that hinder the arts, despite unwavering interest from students and teachers. “Socioeconomic status, location, and even cultural barriers can shift concerns away from the arts. Just getting by, day-to-day, is challenging enough. But for that very reason, if you want to see a school that absolutely needs additional support for its arts programs—you don’t have to go much farther than KM.”
After a few minutes of conversation with Thompson, you recognize that he has never been one to let systemic challenges derail plans that he has for his students. At the same time, he faces many obstacles that every teacher will sympathize with—but that most people won’t immediately associate with a choir classroom.
“One interesting challenge is working with students that have either just moved to America—or are from such a different culture—and have no concept of rehearsal or performance. I’m working with brilliant students but some are still breaking through American cultural and language barriers. It can be difficult trying to rehearse at the high school level while teaching basic English reading skills at the same time.”
Through the years, however, Thompson has honed his toolbox of strategies.
“I expose my students to musical theater as much as I can. I give students material that they are able to understand emotionally—even if they aren’t necessarily understanding all of the words. I need to incorporate musical theater and the physical storytelling. Being dramatic transcends the language barrier. And it helps to teach a student about what a song means—they don’t necessarily have to understand English to understand the art.”
Last year, Thompson once again saw one of his students join the cast of the Rising Star Project—this time for a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. It was also the first year that the school was invited to attend a matinee performance and cheer on their classmate.
“Many of my students had NEVER been in Seattle before. Seeing my students walking up to the theater, past the marquee, and going to experience musical theater for the first time was inspiring. What was remarkable to me was that they understood the show so well. They GOTCarousel. We talked about the deeper themes in the show—about abuse and forgiveness and the line between those two things—a very complex subject for students to encounter. And in their first show! We had some great conversations which were less about how great the performers were, and more about how great the story was. And that for me was eye-opening. You don’t want students to dwell on “look how great this or that performer is”—as much as you want them say “look how great Rodgers and Hammerstein is.”
There was one particular student performer that Thompson was glad to see acknowledged by his students—their choir classmate, Curtis, who had been cast in the ensemble.
“There was buzz at the school beforehand. But especially when they got into the 5th Avenue Theatre, got into Seattle—they understood how big of an opportunity it was for Curtis and how meaningful an experience it was for him. They were able to see a student from their school up there, and they knew that a piece of that show belonged to them. I will never forget that.”
For Thompson, the pride he has for his students and his joy in watching them perform is deeply seeded in his own journey.
“When I first moved to this area, I was in middle school andI had no self-esteem whatsoever. I was picked on, I was really insecure—I remember how low I felt and how little I saw of myself. I knew that there was a theater program at the school I was at, and I remember auditioning for the show that was being put on that year. And I got the lead role—in Mack and Mabel. And the director there, Mrs. Grajewski was the first teacher to say, ‘I believe in you, you can do this.’ And that changed my life. [That experience on stage was so positive, it gave me a confidence to do things like sports—I started doing honors curriculum classes—English and math—I made friends and I started to became the person I was on the inside, but was too afraid to show.] And that’s why I became a teacher. And that’s also why I teach the performing arts and musical theater. Every student deserves the opportunity to be on stage and perform—and do it out of joy—and to be applauded and supported and embraced by a community. And I want to try and create that experience for as many students as possible.”