Inside a darkened auditorium on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus on Nov. 1, a group of middle school students from communities around Alaska sat transfixed by a 50-minute show about a set of familiar topics.
The play “New Kid,” written by Dennis Foon and performed by students in the UAA theater department, tells a story about immigration, bullying, friendship, acceptance and overcoming cultural and language barriers. After the show, the teen audience members had a chance to explore the set and ask questions of the cast members.
Actor Jarett Hardy said the show makes a visible impact. Playing the titular role in his first UAA production, he said, he was nervous at first. But the response from viewers changed that.
“It’s just awesome to see the bright looks on their faces,” Hardy said.
The students at the Nov. 1 show came from Hooper Bay, Valdez, Fairbanks, Chenega Bay, Anchorage and Mountain Village. Over the course of the semester, the cast has performed for audiences from Girdwood to Denali. The show carries a strong anti-bullying message, Hardy said. Young viewers relate to that.
“There was a little kid that walked up to me once, he was only 6 years old; he was like, ‘I love the show!’” Hardy said. “There’s also been a couple of times when students will actually kind of share a couple of stories about problems that they have. And so we definitely want to get that message out there.”
The show is directed by Nova Cunningham, an assistant professor in the UAA Department of Theatre and Dance.
“I am just pleased with how popular the project is from every perspective — schools wanting it, community groups wanting to support it and the students, how enthusiastic they are about this message,” she said, standing outside the UAA auditorium after the Nov. 1 show. “They come back after every tour and every performance with a story that excites them; they’re making a difference using their art of theater — how amazing is that?”
Cast members auditioned for the production about two weeks into the semester, and completed around four to five weeks of rehearsals before taking the single-act show on the road, Cunningham said. The play’s impact extends well beyond the final curtain call, she said.
“It starts great conversations with parents, with teachers, with the classroom,” Cunningham said. “A lot of times people think of theater mainly for entertainment, but it is such an excellent tool for social change.”
Final public performances are scheduled to take place Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m. at UAA’s Harper Studio Theater.