Theater teacher Meagan Millar just wants her students to be themselves.
Kids are forced to be someone they’re not all the time, said Millar, so creating a place like the theater, where they can be real, is important.
“You can just be yourself and leave all your baggage at the door, and the kids really buy into that,” Millar said. “It’s amazing to see what develops from there.”
Millar, a member of the Niagara Falls Teachers, discovered the power of drama when she was a child. She grew up in Niagara Falls, auditioning for roles at the community theater. When she got to high school, she was excited to finally be able to take drama classes at school under the able direction of drama teacher Kate Muldoon.
Muldoon was magical with kids, Millar said, and her lessons stuck. Millar went on to earn her BFA in Theater Performance from Niagara University. Upon graduation, she toured the country doing children’s theater. That is when she discovered she liked kids, and more than that, they liked her.
She came back to the Niagara Falls City School District 11 years ago, first as a teaching assistant. She earned her master’s in education and got certified in theater with the dream of one day succeeding her mentor Muldoon. Instead, Superintendent Mark Laurrie hired Millar as the district’s new theater teacher and asked her to build a new K-12 theater program.
Over the course of the last 5 years, Millar has created and implemented the new drama curriculum for the district’s elementary schools. She also established a drama-focused after-school program at the middle schools, where students produce full-scale musicals each semester. Past productions include Lion King, Jr. and Frozen, Jr., which were performed in front of sold-out crowds.
Millar credits the growth of this program to the support of Superintendent Laurrie, who is a staunch supporter of the arts. He also knows a well-rounded curriculum that includes the performing arts can be a powerful tool for keeping students in school.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median household income for the Niagara Falls district is $32,857, and 39% of families are below the poverty line. The district also reports chronic student absenteeism and below average graduation rates, but Laurrie hopes that efforts like this will turn that around.
“Kids come to school for all kinds of reasons,” Laurrie said. “We have to meet kids where their interests are.”
“I think about this as much as the football team,” added Laurrie. “I’m all about sports and the new uniforms, but I’m also all about getting the rights to Peter Pan.”
Still in its infancy, the drama program is already starting to deliver. Students, who cannot participate in the plays unless their grades stay up, are logging more class time and improving their marks, Laurrie said. The program also does some heavy lifting in the social and emotional realm. “I don’t look at SEL as just counseling,” he said. “This is an SEL program, too.”
Millar agrees. She starts each day’s theater class with open sharing, when students can talk about what is going on in their lives. Often, Millar will explain how their experiences can inform their acting and become part of their “actor’s toolbox.” The circle time also helps Millar spot students who may need extra support and builds trust between students.
Education research supports these claims. Studies show that drama programs develop empathy, compassion and self-confidence. They also contribute to success in other subjects because they enhance students’ ability to communicate.
Millar has seen it happen time after time onstage; students coming out of their shells, taking risks, and growing as a result. “I have so many kids tell me, ‘I thought I wasn’t good enough, but you taught me that I am,’” she said.
In June, Millar and former university classmate TJ Wilcox started a new theater company Open Door Productions, in the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center. Their mission is to provide more opportunities for local kids, she said. Over the summer, the company hosted its first drama camps and a series of workshops for students — all free of charge.
Wilcox said that he and Millar have created a space where students can come and forge real relationships with one another, as opposed to what passes for ‘real’ on social media.
“Theater is about making live, intimate connections with others. There’s no photo shopping here,” Wilcox said. He said the key to their success has been Millar’s skill for making students feel at home with themselves.
“It’s crazy to see what kids can do,” Millar said.