Quinn Droege is slowly building up a passion for performance.
Droege, a junior at Cherry Creek High School, is slated to play a starring role in the theater department's upcoming production of "The Jungle Book." The show, based in part of the novel by Rudyard Kipling and in part on the animated Disney film, will feature Droege playing one-half of Kaa, the snake that threatens Mogli, the story's protagonist.
The play has forced Droege to face some pretty deeply embedded fears about performing in front of an audience.
"I've had to work on my stage fright," Droege said during a break from rehearsing for the show at the Fine Arts theater on the Cherry Creek High School campus.
Droege hasn't done that work alone. "The Jungle Book" is the result of hard work by students in the school's Mutually Assisted Learning (MAL) Fine Arts class. The presentation by the Unified Theatre Troupe of Cherry Creek High School represents a collaboration between performers of all backgrounds and abilities and offers a truly inclusive approach to the arts. The show is a unified theater production, a performance that includes students from the school's Integrated Learning Center (ILC) program, which offers curriculum for students with cognitive or physical disabilities. These students are paired with typically developing peers for the production as part of a unique approach to fine arts education at CCHS.
The unified model is hardly new. Student athletes have come together in unified sports programs at schools across the Cherry Creek School District for several years; these initiatives have offered a common ground for kids from all backgrounds.
Bringing that dynamic to arts education, however, represents a novel step for CCHS and for the district. Just as athletes pair up to strategize and play on a unified sports team, the "Jungle Book" production sees small teams of students coming together to build a professional theatrical feature.
The peers working with the ILC students aren't necessarily well-versed in drama. According to Abby Fisher, a CCHS senior who plays the other half of Kaa, the show has been enlightening on several levels. Fisher has worked closely with Droege to help her meet the demands of the role, even as she's worked to refine her own acting chops.
"The peers have a lot of other responsibilities. We help our partners with their lines, but we also have work on our own lines," Fisher said. "A lot of us aren't theater kids, we're more in it for the ILC students. Having to step into the theater role as well as working with our partners has been a challenge, but it's been well worth it."
That dynamic of cooperation and collaboration is one of the core missions of the school's MAL class. Jimmy Miller, the school's theater and acting teacher, said the class unites students in a unique way. The ILC students have the chance to discover a passion for an art form that's often closed to them, and the peers have the chance to play a critical role in their peers' creative development.
"What I've seen from the typically developing students is that they're really needed as a support tool, and they're starting to take ownership of that," Miller said. "They're seeing the joy that's coming from the ILC kids … It's really finding a way to include everybody and find a way to address everybody's needs."
That dynamic was clear as the cast worked together on the Fine Arts Theater stage in advance of the show's premiere on a recent Monday afternoon. Fisher and Droege, along with several other pairs of ILC students and peers, rehearsed their scenes with gusto, taking on the physical characteristics of snakes, birds, wolves and other jungle creatures.
On stage, all differences disappeared, and the group was united in bringing Kipling's tale to life.
The Cherry Creek High School Unified Production of "The Jungle Book" will run during periods 4 and 6 on Nov. 14 for ILC students. There will also be an evening performance at 7 p.m. on Nov. 14 for the public. The performance will take place at the CCHS Fine Arts Theater, 9300 E. Union Ave, Greenwood Village. Admission is free.