Kim Ward's directorial debut is in the books.
A first-year teacher at Thompsonville schools, Ward and her students staged "Annie, Jr." last weekend in the small Franklin County town. They performed two nights to crowds that swelled the seating in the auditorium at Community of Christ Church, where the performances took place.
"I loved interacting with the kids outside the classroom," Ward said. "It was fun to pass my love of performing on to another generation."
Ward is no stranger to the stage, having performed in multiple theater and band shows while attending Johnston City schools. But being the director gave her a few challenges.
"I've never choreographed before," she said of coming up with blocking for the dance numbers.
Staging a musical in such a small school is a challenge, but Ward was undaunted.
"Talent is everywhere, not everyone," she said with a grin. "Arts are crucial in a small school. Opportunities are few and far between. If you aren't bookish or athletic, you kind of don't have a place to fit in. Arts are that place."
Superintendent Chris Grant agreed.
"I think the arts allow students to explore their talents and develop the confidence to perform and express themselves," she said. "It also brings them together as a performing team that develops lifelong friendships."
Dylan Duke, who played the role of Daddy Warbucks, agreed.
"It is so fun," he said. "You get to make friends you normally wouldn't. I made new friends. We are like a family."
Ward also said the theater is a place where kids can dream.
"You can escape into a different world and be anyone you want to be," she said. "You can take a break from he scary reality for just a moment."
Mackenzie Nolen, who played the character of Miss Hannigan, echoed that sentiment.
"The arts are important to me," she said, "because it gives me an opportunity to get away and not be me for a little bit."
Nolen said this has been the biggest role of her career as well as one of her "personal favorites."
For one audience member, the show brought back memories.
"I didn't know that Kim was a teacher until she sent me a request to come and see her production," said Don Kragness. Kragness is a retired music teacher who spent more than 30 years in the Johnston City School District.
Kragness said he was "thrilled" on multiple levels.
"I was thrilled she became a teacher, that 'Annie' had made such an impression on her that she picked it for her first musical, and that she pulled together her cast from such a small school," he said.
Kragness said watching his former student made him feel "proud, happy, and complete."
He also knows firsthand the value that arts play in the curriculum.
"It teaches many things that go far beyond the classroom," he said. "Responsibility, confidence, teamwork, dedication, work ethic, cooperation, and the ability to follow direction and take criticism."
Kragness said arts in school "give kids something that can continue all their life, no matter what their age, income, or social status" might be.
"Arts are both classroom and extracurricular," he said. "What is taught in class is put to immediate action after school. No other subject does that."
Ward saw that firsthand.
"The students blossomed," she said. "There were a few kids up there (on stage) that have never done anything like that before. I saw them come alive through theater."
Chloe Mays, who played the lead role for the production, said she has always dreamed of an opportunity to act and sing.
"Mrs. Ward made my dreams come true," she said.