By Bobby Ellis
If there’s one thing that Carlee Cornett does not want someone walking out of the plays put on by Lincoln County Middle School to say it’s this:
“That was cute.”
“We can do better than cute,” said Cornett of her students and their productions. “We’re not in elementary school and we can do better. We have a lot of people walk away from our shows saying ‘I thought that was high school students.'”
As the students in her drama class near the closing number of their fall production “Elf the Musical Jr.,” snow machines can be heard kicking on and the white powder begins to float down from above the stage.
The crowd of middle schoolers watching the production are noticeably impressed. Gasps of surprise, literal “oohs” and “aaahs” make their way through the crowd.
“We’re better than cute,” said Cornett.
Cornett arrived at Lincoln County Middle School in 2009 as a choir director and music teacher. Prior to her arrival, the middle school had only done two musicals. Now they do a yearly spring musical, but this is the first time that they’ve added a fall musical. Cornett spent nine weeks working with the students on drama, theater, production, music and choreography. For productions, students build the props and the set.
“It’s completely student run,” said Cornett. “It’s amazing what kids can do.”
After the show, the students ran outside to the front of the school and waited for the audience to be released. As the student audience came outside, cheers and applause erupted. The theater-goers made their way down the line of cast members handing out high fives.
“It’s really cool, because a lot of people don’t expect this,” said Anna Story, who co-stars in the production as Jovie. “Having everyone come up and give you high fives afterwards like that, it’s awesome, seeing all your hard work pay off.”
“It’s an amazing feeling being in something that’s this well done,” said Holden Stamper, who plays the main character, Buddy the Elf. “There’s this feeling inside that you can’t get anywhere else, honestly. You just get that rush and that adrenaline.”
The arts program at Lincoln County Middle School has been cited as a model and is “recognized as a big deal in the community,” according to Jackie Risden-Smith, the chief academic officer at Lincoln County Schools.
“Mainly, student interest was a huge part of it,” said Cornett. “My principal at the time, Debbie Sims, had this expectation that she really wanted to make it a thriving program, and I just ran with it. The parents fundraise for us, they give donations if they can’t fundraise.
“We’ve equipped the kids with time to put on a show, a class to learn what they’re doing. I’ve been very fortunate.”