It’s an hour before curtain at Crestwood Elementary School’s annual play and the backstage is buzzing. Stage hands prepare the set for the first scene while actors try to tame their butterflies as they rehearse their lines one last time. Scenery designers make final touch-ups, and volunteer parents wander around adjusting costumes, handing out props, and offering words of encouragement. There’s even a hair-and-makeup station where cast members are daubed with eye shadow and blush.
In the middle of all the commotion is Debra Kay Robinson Lindsay, a petite blonde woman in a black suit and heels who somehow has complete command over the army of nearly 40 adrenaline-pumped elementary students milling around backstage.
“She is the greatest music teacher ever,” says sixth grader Tiffany Torrez-Gutierrez. “There’s something in her heart that just comes out that brings out the best in all of us.”
Not only is Lindsay the music teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia, she’s also an author, arranger, composer, choral director, and GRAMMY Music Educator Award nominee.
But on this busy spring afternoon, she is focused solely on her role as founder and director of the Crestwood After School Theater (CAST) and its opening production of her original play “The Last Days of Pompei.”
Under Lindsay’s direction, CAST performs an original drama or musical each year, most of which were adapted and arranged by Lindsay herself, including “James Madison: Little Man, Big Ideas,” “Abraham Lincoln: And Now He Belongs to the Ages,” “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and “Julius Caesar.”
CAST is made up of fourth, fifth and sixth graders – the majority of whom are English Language Learners — who meet every day after school to work on the annual play. There are lots of roles for the students to fill. In addition to the actors, there are artists who paint and design the scenery; stage hands who help with sound, lighting, and sets; and producers who come up with the right props and final details that tie the production together.
“These performances are a work of art,” says Lindsay. “Students, many of whom can barely read the script at auditions, shine with pride when they perform their parts…and they learn much more about social studies and language arts than anyone would have thought possible.”
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Tiffany, who plays Antonia in “The Last Days of Pompei,” says she practiced lines with her cousin every day for an hour. Their family is from Honduras and they speak Spanish at home, so CAST offered an opportunity for the girls to hone their English skills.
“Not only did I learn new words,” says Tiffany, “but I also learned how to act to show my expression.”
Tiffany wasn’t sure if she’d be able to participate in CAST at first because she’s responsible for taking care of her younger brother, Angel, a third grader, after school while her parents are at work. But even though he’s still in third grade, Ms. Lindsay made an exception for Angel to be a gladiator in the play so that both children could take part.
She knows she’s providing a service that goes beyond after school enrichment. “Many students who want to be in CAST have to take care of their younger siblings after school, so I always find a way to make it work by involving all the kids,” she says.
There are even students she takes care of who aren’t members of CAST.
“A lot of these kids don’t have a snack, or sometimes even dinner, when they go home, so they come to CAST rehearsals so they can eat, and I make sure there’s enough for everyone.”
A Fairfax County school teacher for 35 years, Lindsay has been directing the CAST plays since 2002 and Crestwood Principal Tim Kasik says he couldn’t have found a more passionate, dedicated music teacher. She is past president of the Virginia Elementary Music Educators Association, the current Virginia chair of Music in Our Schools Month, and is a National Board Certified Teacher in early and middle childhood music. She leads choral groups at Crestwood who have performed at the White House and many of the choir members are also CAST members.
Kasik says Lindsay’s gift is using music and the arts to enrich every aspect of the school’s curriculum.
“Her plays offer an exciting way to bring the curriculum together,” he says. “They blend social studies with history, language arts with music and fine arts. Last year they did Julius Caesar, and she had kids who don’t speak English as a first language speaking Shakespeare flawlessly.”
The best part, says Lindsay, is offering the students a more complete picture of the richness of history and culture.
“Too often we just test and go on,” she says. “But theater allows the students to see the style of dress and music, the food people ate, and how they lived. Then they have a real sense of history, and a real sense of the world.”
Nominate your favorite music teacher by April 15th for the first ever GRAMMY Music Educator Award. The winner will be flown to Los Angeles to accept the Award and attend the GRAMMYs, plus pick up a $10,000 honorarium.
Photos: Sewell Johnson