During the 2016-2017 school year, Jasmine Ireland directed Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School’s show choir, which earned a top one rating from judges for its performance of music from “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” at the Maine’s District VI Vocal Jazz Festival. CHRIS DOUGHERTY PHOTO

Drama teacher Jasmine Ireland hired by The Grand as education director

ELLSWORTH — For Jasmine Ireland, a life on and around the stage was a foregone conclusion from her earliest days.

“There was never really any question that this was what I was going to do,” said the veteran choreographer and director of drama and show choir productions at Ellsworth High School, where she has worked alongside her mother, Rebecca Wright.

Ireland, now the recently appointed director of education at The Grand, said she spent a lot of time on the University of Maine campus as a child while her mother was studying theater there. She has clear memories of attending classes with her mother and also being selected for an on-campus theater production that included a role for a young girl.

“They paid me $25,” Ireland said. “I bought a pair of shoes and a Barbie. That seemed like a really good deal.”

Ireland returned to the University of Maine after high school to earn her own theater degree and then went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in acting from the New School in New York City.

“To be able to do this for the community I come from is really very special to me,” Ireland said. Ellsworth American Photo by Steve Fuller.

After spending time in Manhattan, she returned to Maine, where among the jobs she has held have been director of education and outreach at Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor (where she also has performed, including as Celia in last fall’s production of “Calendar Girls”).

The education position at The Grand is a new one and it coincides with the arrival of its new executive director, Nick Turner. He said the two areas he heard board members say were most important were live theater and education. Although he has a strong background in theater-related education, he said he realized he can’t do everything on his own and so the new position was created.

Ireland’s selection for the job came after Turner first met Wright and then met up with Ireland at Flexit Café and Bakery across Main Street. Both Ireland and Turner said everything just clicked during that conversation, as they found they had a similar vision of how theater-related education ought to be done.

“We were finishing each other’s sentences,” Ireland said. “I don’t think it gets more serendipitous than that.”

“By the end of that meeting,” Turner said, “I knew Jasmine was the person we needed for this position.”

First up for Ireland is a series of three summer intensives, programs for students of various ages designed to give a “vibrant, robust and engaging” experience of learning about theater. Students are rehearsing for their respective productions, “but will also receive daily instruction in acting, movement and voice,” according to Ireland. Guest artists and technicians will come in during the weeks for classes and workshops on subjects ranging from stage combat to puppetry.

“It’s ed-u-ca-tion-al,” said Ireland, enunciating each syllable.

Younger students, those in kindergarten through fourth grade, will perform “Dust Devils,” an original musical written by Turner. It tells the story of a girl who gets knocked over by a dust devil and encounters mysterious children in the aftermath. The show is described as a “mix of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Stranger Things’ with original songs.”

Fifth- through ninth-graders will stage “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.,” which follows the journey of Elle Woods from sorority queen to Harvard-educated lawyer. Woods’ character was popularized by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde,” which was based on the novel by the same title written by Amanda Brown. The book was based on Brown’s own experiences at Stanford Law School.

Jasmine Ireland and her mother Rebecca Wright have been the passionate, powerful and creative force behind Ellsworth High School’s award-winning show choir.

Students in grades 9 through 12, meanwhile, will perform “Heathers The Musical High School Edition.” Based on the 1988 movie “Heathers,” the show is a toned-down version of that original, R-rated material while still addressing important themes faced by teens. As an article in Playbill last fall stated, “Cut the curses, sex, drugs and alcohol, and you’ve got a story with mean teens at its core — ready to teach high school students a lesson.”

Ireland said ninth-grade students choose from either “Legally Blonde” or “Heathers,” whichever they feel more comfortable with. She said while the three productions may seem very different from one another, she sees a common thread running through them.

“Each one features a female protagonist dealing with identity and self-confidence, and some social concerns,” Ireland said. “These are women who are trying to figure out how they fit into the world.”

The three intensives all started Monday. “Dust Devils” will stage a public performance on Friday, July 21, with shows for “Legally Blonde” on Friday, Aug. 11 and Saturday, Aug. 12. and “Heathers” on Aug. 12 and Sunday, Aug. 13.

“My hope is that the performances we do with our students are of a quality that the whole community will want to come and see these shows,” said Ireland. “I want this work to contribute to the programming of The Grand.”

Ireland said she wants to draw on the experience of many talented people from the Hancock County area and beyond to make The Grand “a place that is vibrant and experimental.” She envisions it as a hub for young people to learn about all the aspects of theater and performing, and also wants to have educational opportunities for adults.

In 2013, Ellsworth High School Show Choir won second in the Maine State Jazz Festival for its “Thrills and Chills” production featuring Michael Jackson songs. As the production’s dance director, Ireland won the award for best choreography.

Every Wednesday during the summer The Grand will show a musical movie to help participants “explore the world of musical theater through film.” The films, which include “West Side Story,” “Newsies” and “Xanadu,” among others, also are open to the public. Shows start at 1 p.m., running through Wednesday, Aug. 30, and tickets cost $6 per person.

Ellsworth is fortunate to have the strong Visual and Performing Arts Academy at the high school, Ireland said, but she sees opportunities to do work at The Grand — such as “Heathers” — that might not be possible in a school setting.

Ireland said she and Tuner have talked with Northern Lights Dance Arts and The Eastern Maine Pops Orchestra for Young Musicians (TEMPO) about doing an original adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” Ireland admitted such an undertaking would be “a bit risky,” but said that isn’t a reason not to do it.

“That’s what theater does,” she said. “We take risks.”

Ireland said her new position at The Grand is the fulfillment of a long-held vision, where the performing arts center has creative and comprehensive educational programming available to people in the community.

“I’ve kind of been waiting these past 20 years for this to happen,” she said. “To be able to do this for the community I come from is really very special to me.”

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller has worked at The Ellsworth American since 2012. He covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland. [email protected]
Steve Fuller

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