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Breaking Out

Students at Hoover Middle School are finding themselves in Gilbert & Sullivan’s characters and the Hoover drama department.

When Melyncia Martin began sixth grade she was shy and quiet. As she prepared for her last theater performance at Herbert Hoover Middle School, Martin, now in eighth grade, reflected on the changes she has seen in herself since then.

“I was pretty reserved. I had friends, but I usually kept things to myself,” Melyncia said.

The summer before sixth grade Melyncia's mother sent her to a week-long theater camp, and something stuck with her from that week. When she began at Hoover , she got involved in the drama department, and nothing has been quite the same since then. Over the last three years she has participated in every theater production the school had to offer, exercising her vocal talent and learning how to be vocal.

“I’m more vibrant now,” Melyncia said. “I can speak my mind.”

“When she came in she had sung in choirs, but she was completely petrified when she got up on stage,” said Pamela Leighton-Bilik, Hoover ’s drama director. The change since then has been remarkable. “She completely came out of her shell.”

Melyncia has found her vocal talent, and so have others.

SELF-DISCOVERY is a common theme among Leighton-Bilik’s students, and it will be on full display when Hoover puts on the classic Gilbert & Sullivan productions of "The Sorcerer and Trial by Jury" next weekend.

“I really like doing this because it expresses me in a way that I like to,” said Josh Denicoff, a Hoover sixth-grader. At school Josh gets to sing a lot, something he said he can’t do as freely at home, and something that Leighton-Bilik said he does very well.

“The first time he got up on stage, everyone’s mouths just dropped,” Leighton-Bilik said.

Will Dorfman, a Hoover seventh-grader, has performed singing roles in previous plays, but said he is still getting comfortable singing.

“I’m not really used to singing,” Will said. “This is the first time I’ve had a solo. … I’ve had a good time, really.”

“It brings out a different side to him,” Leighton-Bilik said.

Eighth-grader Genny Austin is the seasoned veteran of the Hoover cast. The daughter of Christopher Austin, a professional opera singer, Genny Austin has performed in some of her father’s works as well as several at Hoover. Though she already knows a lot about theater, her time at Hoover has taught her a lot about her classmates.

“You get outside of yourself — you meet people you wouldn’t normally meet,” Genny said. “It encourages you to make friends in different grades and in different [social] groups.”

“You meet people you’ve never seen before,” Josh said. “You find out their personality because you’re with them every week.”

LEIGHTON-BILIK has been a teacher for 31 years and a drama teacher at Hoover for the last 20. During that time she has made Gilbert & Sullivan productions the school’s theatrical staple.

“When I started here [at Hoover ] I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing,” Leighton-Bilik said. “Now it’s become kind of a tradition at Hoover.” Many Hoover alums go on to star in Winston Churchill High School’s theatrical productions, and many have also gone on to major in theater at college and some have gone on to perform on Broadway, Leighton-Bilik said.

“The talent seems to get better every year,” Leighton-Bilik said. That rising talent level is a good thing, particularly when it comes to the chorus that Mylencia will lead.

“In Gilbert & Sullivan the chorus is the backbone of the show — if you don’t have a good chorus, you don’t have a show,” Leighton-Bilik said.

The two musicals that the Hoover students have been practicing since February are what Leighton-Bilik described as “typical Gilbert & Sullivan — there’s no sense behind it and it’s a lot of fun.”

The first story, "Trial By Jury," follows the case of Angelina, who sues her husband and ends up marrying the judge overseeing the case. The second story, "The Sorcerer," is about a man who puts a town under the spell of a love potion that causes people to fall in love with the first person they see. The two shows will run back-to-back and will total about two hours.

LEARNING HOW TO PLAY characters that have differences and similarities from themselves has been a new experience for Leighton-Bilik’s students.

Genny is playing the role of Angelina in "Trial By Jury" and has found the part to her liking.

“I like my character because I’m not really a person who’s outgoing with guys,” said Genny. “She’s kind of sneaky and wants attention,” Genny said of Angelina. “It’s fun because it’s different — and who doesn’t like getting attention?”

“I really like my character because he expresses himself,” Josh said. The usher character ranges between being stern and reserved and being what Josh described as “a goofball.” The dichotomy is something that Josh said is easy to play. “That’s like me in real life, so I’m pretty good at that.”

Will is playing the character of John Wellington Wells in "The Sorcerer."

“My character’s basically this old, smelly, stinky guy,” Will said in explaining what he like about his character. “It’s a change.”

For all of her students, Leighton-Bilik said that she wants their theatrical experiences to encourage introspection and growth, but that the extent of that effect is up to them.

“All I can give them is the chance to grow their confidence,” Leighton-Bilik said.

In his first year at Hoover, Josh has gained confidence and has already learned a lot about himself, but this year he has also learned about sacrifice.

“The biggest reason I’m doing it is my grandfather,” Josh said. Marvin Denicoff is 83, Josh said, and is in poor health. “He’s struggling right now and is in a lot of pain. I think this is a motivation to him to keep going.”