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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Sierra Heflin as Princess Jasmine and other cast members perform during a dress rehearsal of Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin" at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty years ago, teachers at Clayton Middle School began directing small, student-driven plays. Twenty years ago, the plays were placed into the hands of the neighborhood community who decided the school's theater department would be worth investing in. And 16 years ago, Nanette Kearl stepped in, first as choreographer, then as director. Since that time, she has played a pivotal role in making Clayton's theater department the “amazing spectacle” it is today.

“(It just shows you) that people believe in public education, that people buy into experiences … and in supporting all arts programs,” Kearl told the Deseret News.

You may not think there’s much to a simple middle school play, but community members know full well that the yearly Clayton production is no joke.

To give you an idea, here are some statistics from this year’s upcoming production of Aladdin: 304 students cast, nearly 300 volunteers and 9 performances, with the school anticipating nearly 6,000 total attendees.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Director Nanette Kearl helps move a pieces of the set during a dress rehearsal of Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin" at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

“It’s so big,” 14-year-old Jack Biggs, who is playing Aladdin, told the Deseret News. “In other schools it might not be as big, but here, half the school is doing it. It's what you do. It’s such an amazing production that so many people go to just for a middle school.”

And this year’s production of "Aladdin" will prove to be bigger than ever.

While combing through costumes, Kearl showcased everything from Jasmine’s gold-trimmed wedding dress to Jafar’s headdress to "Arabian Nights" sequin tops, many of which have been borrowed from Tuacahn Amphitheatre.

“(These) things are expensive,” Kearl noted — which is why she’s spent years cultivating relationships with various theaters across the country and forming partnerships with other directors. This year, Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theater crafted personalized set designs for the Clayton production, including a massive elephant that comes out during the number "Prince Ali," as well as a magnificent cave of wonders.

But it isn’t just professionals who contribute their talents — hundreds of community members help craft costumes, set designs and props for the play. Clayton's production of "Aladdin" will feature a flying carpet, camels, a marketplace, gold piles, golden thrones, snake charmers and peacock dancers, to name a few of its features. In fact, Kearl said that the production has already outgrown their 55-foot stage due to the amount of space all the costuming and massive sets require.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
James Chisholm as Aladdin and other cast members perform during a dress rehearsal of Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin" at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

And while she admits their "Aladdin" does have “a lot of flair,” Kearl is quick to remind students that it isn’t just about the spectacle.

Every year, Kearl takes something from the text and makes it the theme of the play. This year’s theme comes from a line from the Genie: “It’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside that counts.”

And as a director, Kearl tries to do just that. She doesn’t just scrutinize talent when casting a play, but looks for those who exhibit strong character.

“The one element I always look for in a callback is, 'can you lift those around you?' That is the most important quality,” Kearl said.

This ability to lift those around him was what helped Biggs land the role of Aladdin, despite taking his first theater class last year because it was the only elective that would fit in his schedule.

“I never really thought about doing theater or being a big part in the play,” Biggs said. “I’ve never taken voice lessons or acting lessons … but I ended up getting Aladdin.”

" When you stand in front of these kids, you stand in front of promise. "

That’s what the Clayton productions have been doing for kids for the past 20 years, Kearl explained — giving them a sense of their own potential.

“When you stand in front of these kids, you stand in front of promise,” she said.

She recalled a student from years ago who was incredibly gifted, and though everyone assumed performing would be effortless for him, he was actually terrified.

“(One day I talked to him and said), ‘Do you trust me?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, Mrs. Kearl, I do.’ I said ‘Ok, Just trust me,’” Kearl remembered.

On performance day, he was finally able to go full-out and no one could deny that he was born for the stage. “But," she said, "he would’ve never thought to have done it. (He learned to) take a risk and trust.”

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Jacob Thomas as Jafar performs during a dress rehearsal of Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin" at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

Kearl's belief in the students is just one of the hundreds of reasons why nearly all the student body at Clayton Middle School jumps at the chance to be involved in the school plays. But Kearl has another theory for why so many students are flocking to the stage.

“It’s different from (any other) social experience they’re having today,” she said. “They’re learning to look at someone in the eye and speak, not looking at a phone and sending a text message. … It helps (them) feel what others feel. (They) start having empathy."

" The audience gets to see the (actual) show, but I get to see the real show. I have the best seat in the house. "

For Biggs, the reason he’s enjoyed his experience is because he’s gotten to forge new friendships, and because he’s learned skills he didn’t even know he needed.

“I’ve learned how to read my emails and keep track of my schedule — everyday life things (that will) help myself in the future,” he said.

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Seeing students like Biggs develop confidence in various capacities and settings, even beyond the stage, is what keeps Kearl coming back every year after year, something she says she plans on doing “forever.”

“(My favorite thing is) watching a human progress,” Kearl said, fighting back tears.

“The audience gets to see the (actual) show, but I get to see the real show. I have the best seat in the house.”

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
James Chisholm as Aladdin and other cast members perform during a dress rehearsal of Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin" at the school in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

If you go ...

What: Clayton Middle School's production of "Aladdin"

When: Mar. 1-2, 7 p.m. and Mar. 4-9, 7 p.m., matinee on March 9, 1 p.m.

Where: 1470 S. 1900 East

How much: $9

Website: clayton.slcschools.org