An unlikely partnership

An unlikely partnership

Some Tolman High School students are part of “Newsies,” put on by homeschool group A Work in Progress Productions at the school. Pictured are, front from left, Allisa Dantzler, Stephanie Harwood and Rodrigo Espinal-Curvelo, back row, from left, Elizabeth Cordoba, Xavier Duran and Maria Recillas. The partnership has invigorated interest in Tolman’s auditorium and led to many upgrades to the facility. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Homeschool group brings productions, new vibrancy to Tolman auditorium

PAWTUCKET – An unusual partnership between a homeschool theater production group from Attleboro and the Pawtucket School Department has given students at Tolman High School an option to get involved with theater while bringing needed use and upgrades to Tolman's grand auditorium on Exchange Street.

Tolman students, who for years have lamented the lack of a theater program at the school, told The Breeze they couldn't be happier to have students and teachers from A Work in Progress Productions using the school for performances, which they are now part of.

As part of a blossoming partnership between A Work in Progress and Tolman going back to 2013, Tolman students will play a larger part in an AWIP production this year, with several students playing roles as the people of Brooklyn in “Newsies,” set to take the stage at Tolman Nov. 16-17 at 7:30 p.m.

Senior Stephanie Harwood said it's been exciting to finally have a theater program to be part of, saying there were previously “zero opportunities” for acting at Tolman because the school simply hasn't been able to revive its former program and there's such an emphasis here on athletics. Harwood said any misconceptions she had about homeschoolers have been completely erased as she's worked with AWIP students on “Newsies" and other productions.

Cheryl McWilliams, assistant superintendent of the Pawtucket School Department, and former theater director at the school before moving on to become a principal and then top administrator, recently joined the board at AWIP. Her daughter-in-law, Tolman graduate Michelle McWilliams, is the choreographer for the group, and her grandchildren are homeschooled students who participate in AWIP's offerings.

McWilliams said she's been impressed to see the growth of AWIP, and is thrilled to have her grandchildren be part of it. It's also great to see Tolman again have some form of theater program, she said.

McWilliams recalls putting on some good productions back in the day. Music teacher Michael Raymond's strength is in band and he's done a great job, she said, but no one has really taken up the cause of the theater program, with a couple of attempts to revive it coming up short.

“The arts are really dear to my heart, and I just want to see it grow and get bigger, with the ultimate goal of bringing attention to our beautiful, renovated auditorium,” she said. School bonds on the ballot this week will hopefully help continue improving facilities, added McWilliams.

McWilliams is a believer that each family has different schooling needs. There are sometimes misconceptions that homeschooling a student means that someone finds inner city schools not good enough, she said, but as someone who had three students go through local public schools, that's simply not true. Local homeschool families can be as much a part of the public school community as they want to be, she said.

“Really what it comes down to, it's about the children,” she said.

Jennifer Roca, director at AWIP, said she was always intent on using her experience on Broadway and with a theater education in New York to give students the best experience possible through a production company, but had no idea this is what it would eventually look like.

The Tolman theater was just sort of “thrown in our lap” several years ago, said Roca, and when she learned through Raymond about the lack of a theater program, she began brainstorming ways AWIP could help out. When AWIP's outreach group, Salt + Light, first visited Raymond's class with its mix of music and activities several years ago, many AWIP students were nervous about how they would be accepted, she said, after a negative experience at a private school. The exact opposite ended up happening, she said, as Tolman students erupted in applause after each song and even joined Salt + Light's Brandon Perkins in singing around the piano.

Two years ago, only about three Tolman students participated in AWIP's production of “The Wiz.” Last year, some 15-20 members of the Tolman Junior ROTC were in “White Christmas,” and this year about 10 students are taking part in “Newsies.”

This week, a volunteer painter with AWIP will paint the stage at Tolman for a third time, part of a long-running agreement allowing the group to use the facility in exchange for improvements.

Numerous upgrades have been made, said Patty McLernon, of AWIP, as volunteers have put in countless hours into the facility. Next spring students from the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts will use the set from “Newsies” for their own production of “A West Side Story.” Roca and Raymond had been talking up the 1926 auditorium as a great spot for JMW performances, and though the facility still presents some production challenges, Roca said JMW students and staff loved the idea.

Raymond said he can't say enough good things about the “super beneficital” partnership between Tolman and AWIP, saying he loves that Tolman students are now better able to use an auditorium that needed exposure. The Tolman chorus has long used the space, and JROTC students even use it for exercising, he said, but there's nothing like seeing full-scale productions now on the stage.

Raymond said another fix of the stage last week by AWIP volunteers allows him to roll the piano across the stage unimpeded every day for class.

Tolman has struggled to get a theater program back off the ground, said Raymond, and students were further hurt when the Gamm Theatre, which had a theater program with local students, moved out of the city this year.

The Tolman auditorium needs more visibility, said McLernon. She said many people don't realize it's here and are blown away when they actually see how beautiful it is. The “Newsies,” with its theme of overcoming adversity, is a great one for Tolman students to be a part of, she said.

Michelle McWilliams said Tolman students approached AWIP staff about dancing in the production, and she immediately began working with them on moves to incorporate. Roca said she's also looking for other scenes Tolman students might be able to be part of in the upcoming production.

Tolman students have challenges to overcome to be part of the production, said Roca, including setting aside time to be at rehearsals.

Cole Paul, a homeschooled student and assistant director of “Newsies,” said the Tolman theater isn't just a great place for AWIP performances, but “it's also a community connection.” The facility in many ways is “raw” and a “fixer-upper,” he said, but there's a lot of nostalgia here. He said he loves how “very gritty and in your face” the space is.

Michelle McWilliams said the auditorium doesn't look a lot different than it did when she attended nearly 20 years ago. She said it's been quite the experience, coming back all this time later, to be part of this unlikely partnership between her high school and the homeschool group her children are now part of.

“Newsies” will be the sixth production on the Tolman stage. Visit for more. There will be about 700 tickets available for each of the two performances.