Musicals and the Magic of a Multi-Year Residence

Marcus ShantzIn 2002, students Kirk Schmidt and Leigh McClymont had an idea that Grebel students could produce a full-scale Broadway musical. It was an ambitious and seemingly unrealistic dream. But they wrote a business case and pitched it to Student Council. One year later, Grebel’s production of Godspell opened for a four-night run. Asked about that first production, Kirk reflected that “When we sold out three out of the four nights, we knew we had tapped into something within the Grebel zeitgeist.”

Twenty years and nine productions later, Grebel students continue to present musicals. This year’s show was an impressive production of “Something Rotten!” an irreverent and ribald comedy set in Shake-spearean London. Close to one hundred students were part of the pro-duction—as actors, lighting and sound technicians, choreographers, costume designers, stagehands, and musicians in the live orchestra.

Kirk Schmidt is pleased that the experiment has become a mainstay of Grebel life. “When we started it, I think there was always hope that it could become a tradition. We knew that there was a good chance of that happening, as long as someone took up the mantle.”

Standing and kneeling students perform first play at Grebel

The singular thing about Grebel’s musicals is that they are entirely self-organized by our students. They are not an official program of the College. No one tells students to make it happen. No one receives academic credit. How is it possible that students come together to present a full-scale Broadway musical every two years? Part of the answer is that Grebel’s residence is a multi-year community. Unlike many universities and colleges, our residence includes a large cohort of upper-year students who live side-by-side with the first-years. We also stay connected to students who move out of our residence through our associate program. Upper-year students offer leadership, mentoring, and orientation for first year students. Living here for multiple years gives upper-year students a sense of personal investment in the College, and a sense of responsibility for the community. They also pass traditions down from year to year—and the musical is just one example.

I rely on upper-year students to tell me how the College can do better, and they often take initiative to address gaps and issues on their own. For example, years ago, students noticed that first-year students were nervous about writing resumes and attending interviews for their first work term placements. In response, Grebel’s Student Council created a new leadership position, the “Co-op Representative,” tasked with coaching and mentoring first-year residents through the co-op process. This year, students voted to add an “International Student Representative,” in response to the growing number of overseas students living at Grebel.

Students forming hearts with their arms and hands in Grebel playI’m delighted that Grebel is known for positive student experience, however I can’t take much credit for it. To a large extent, our students create their experience together, without much direction from administrators like me. Our primary role as administrators is to safeguard an environment that enables students to build and lead community on their own. Grebel’s commitment to a multi-year residence—and the leadership of upper-year students—is a big part of that empowering environment.