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How the Thrill of Stage Combat Begat This Year's Middle School Play
How the Thrill of Stage Combat Begat This Year's Middle School Play

An Inside Look at The Trials of Robin Hood with Middle School Theater Director Jonathan Martin

How we got to The Trials of Robin Hood is an interesting tale that started last year when the Middle School play first became a choice in the Da Vinci program, a wildly successful series of non-traditional course options for Middle School students. These partial-year courses, shaped in part by student interests, allow a depth and breadth of 5th-8th grade program experiences from robotics to sustainability, coding, photography, mock trial, podcasting -- and this year's irresistible stage combat class proposed by new Middle School theater director Jonathan Martin.

"Being new, I wasn't quite clear on the play rehearsal schedule and offered to teach stage combat as a Da Vinci class," says Middle School Theater Director Jonathan Martin. "Then I realized that the Middle School play was also a Da Vinci course -- so with the two offerings combined, we had 58 5th-8th grade students eager to participate. My next goal was to find a play that would work perfectly for everyone," he adds.

A story told three ways - with stage combat taking center stage

The clear winner: The Trials of Robin Hood, a comedy by Will Averill, a contemporary playwright who writes frequently for young actors.

"This play is great for three reasons," Martin says. "The first is the significance of combat in the story. The second is that it's a story told three different ways, which is really intriguing. Number three, because the cast is different for each version, it has a zillion roles and is flexible in terms of gender. In essence, the play centers around King Richard's court, in which we hear Robin, Maid Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham tell their versions of what happened. Another plus: there's no clear lead actor, given the different variations and casts," he explains.

The merry band of students were ready to literally throw themselves into their roles, but Martin had some important goals and guidelines. "There's nothing better than stage combat, because it's designed to be safe," he says. "But falling to the ground safely is something that needs to be taught. A key goal in the early weeks of teaching stage combat was to develop fundamental skills in each participant to tell a story that may incorporate physical combat, but to do it in a safe way."

Equally important was the emphasis on story versus self. "I always emphasize story," Martin states. "The Merry Men are running from the sheriff, but at a certain point they can't run anymore and have to stand and fight. It's important for the actors to understand that the fighting is not there for them to get caught up in it. It's there for the audience to experience the drama. The fighting is integral to the storytelling."

Growth, learning begin beyond memorization

As a Middle School theater director, Martin is focused on giving students meaningful insight into what it takes to create a show. "One of my key takeaways for students is that memorizing lines is not acting. Memorizing lines is what you do before you begin acting -- before you're truly learning. There's so much more that goes into it," he says.

The Middle Schoolers actually moved beyond using the script weeks ago. "They went off book in late October because they only get into their bodies, really listen to their stage partners and live in the moment when there's no script in their hands," he explains.

Another way acting creates authentic learning: Mistakes are an inevitable aspect of live performance, and part of the process is about learning how to move on from unanticipated problems and fears. "My message to the students is that if you know your character, as long as you continue to act in a truthful manner to the character, you're being true to the story. Even if you aren't sure where your next line is," he states.

"If you stop believing in your story, and in yourself, then the audience won't believe it either," he adds. At a recent rehearsal, it was clear that the students seemed to be responding really well and having a great time. "Since every kid has a moment of being featured, they all feel ownership and each of them sees that they matter to the story," Martin observes.

Two things Mr. Martin loves at PDS

"Among the things I love about PDS: One, it's a fantastic community of artists. It's phenomenal working with Stan Cahill (PDS Director of Fine and Performing Arts and Design), Ann Robideaux, Janet Dickson, Ben Malone, Edgar Mariano and others involved in these productions. And then on top of that the School itself is so passionate and supportive about the arts. I've worked in a lot of environments before where I've spent most of my day trying to convince people that the arts matter.

"It's so wonderful to be able to walk in the door and focus on the kids. The School's support shows in so many different ways. For example, someone I owe a huge debt of gratitude to is Middle School Athletic Director Scott Bertoli, who shifted the athletics schedule the week of the show so everyone could be available for the final push to perform the play."

About the Middle School Theater Director: PDS's Jonathan A. Martin is a professional actor/director born and raised in East Windsor, NJ. He received his B.A. in Theatre from James Madison University. He has directed shows in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York City. He was the co-founder of a theatre program for home-schooled students in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he directed and taught for two years. As an actor, Jonathan has toured with the Hampstead Stage Company performing in 10 states across the U.S. He also has performed in New York City and across New Jersey with various companies. Jonathan is the co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of Recess Theatre, a youth theatre company based out of Robbinsville. He also serves as Artistic Director for Hightstown Theatre in the Park, and Artistic Associate of Pegasus Theatre Company in West Windsor.

Photos: Students and Jonathan Martin rehearsing on stage under Jonathan Martin's direction; Deb Sugarman (retired Middle School Theater Director) curating costumes.