Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Chris Dayett Thinking Big at MIA

Performing Arts Take Center Stage

Chris Dayett has added a new dimension to the culture at MIA. Photos by Barry Gwinn

Chris Dayett has added a new dimension to the culture at MIA. Photos by Barry Gwinn

Since the school’s founding in 2011, the Performing Arts Department at Marco Island Academy (MIA) had been struggling to gain traction. The program had languished with only lukewarm support from the administration and lack of interest by the students. Not anymore. Now the students are clamoring to get in to the program which is changing the culture at the island’s only high school. The difference maker has been the diminutive but dynamic Chris Dayett, who has virtually set a fire under his performing arts students.

MIA has made great strides in its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum. Its athletic teams are winning plaudits on the playing field. But this month, the talents of MIA’s thespians and singers will take center stage, when on January 26 and 27, they present the musical, “Willy Wonka,” in the round at MIA’s Champagne Pavilion (named for school benefactors Rene and Tish Champagne).

In a theatre/chorus class rehearsal, Mr. Dayett shows how he wants it done.

In a theatre/chorus class rehearsal, Mr. Dayett shows how he wants it done.

Dayett, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware (another Philly guy), found his calling early on and has made it the centerpiece of his life. He says he discovered his love of music at a very young age, creating and performing skits with his sister while sitting on the kneeler and playing the church’s pew like organ. Dayett graduated from UNCWilmington (North Carolina) in 2005 with a BA in Theatre (minoring in Vocal Music) and a BS in Marine Biology. He followed up with a masters degree in Theatre at Villanova University in 2016. In the 10 years between these degrees, he served as music director and theatre arts instructor at a succession of churches and parochial schools, writing over 100 songs for churches of various denominations, while appearing in a dozen local community theatrical productions. He also managed to write a couple plays and musicals during this period.

As he has done for other MIA classes, Mr. Dayett films his own class for later critiquing.

As he has done for other MIA classes, Mr. Dayett films his own class for later critiquing.

But it was his musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” published in 1891, which he considers to be one of his finest achievements – so far. Setting this risqué (by Victorian standards anyway) novel to music must have been challenging. Finished last spring, “Dorian Gray” was an official selection of the 2017 New York Musical Festival and made its Off-Broadway debut this past July. Dayett’s musical went on to win the Show- Score Best of Fest Award. He is already working on another musical, set in Rome.

Dayett’s colorful class schedule gives a hint of what students can expect. A lot of singing is involved.

Dayett’s colorful class schedule gives a hint of what students can expect. A lot of singing is involved.

Upon graduation from Villanova grad school, Dayett knew, more than ever, that he wanted to get back to teaching high school kids. He is a strong believer in Performing Arts as an important component of a well-rounded high school education. “Some kids don’t have an after school activity,” he says, “They have no opportunity to express themselves other than sports. I wanted to use the skills I had developed to give them this opportunity.” On October 31, 2016, armed with his just-received masters degree and an impressive resume (entitled Arts Administrator, Teaching Artist, Playwright/Composer, Member ASCAP & Dramatists Guild of America), Dayette showed up in the office of MIA Principal, Melissa Scott for a job interview.

When he arrived on campus, it was like no school he had ever seen. There were no buildings for starters; everything was in modulars. It being Halloween, the students and staff were dressed up in costumes and masks and seemed to be having a helluva good time to boot. When Chris was finally ushered into Scott’s office he was confronted by a principal dressed up as a cat. In one of the most important interviews in his life, he didn’t quite know how to begin. He needn’t have worried. “I will not be removing my mask,” said Scott, flashing her patented smile, “It took me so long to get ready.” What a wonderful way to break the ice, thought Dayett. “I knew right then that this is the place I wanted to be. I could see that this would be a fun place to work. I even loved the modular classrooms, because you do more when you have less.” Dayett was offered the job that afternoon and accepted the position the following morning.

During that initial meeting, a unique chemistry was born between a principal and one of her instructors. It is a relationship that has sustained and encouraged Dayett and seems to have brought out the best in both of them. “[Chris] sees the same passion in the kids that I do,” says Scott, “The students grow because of him. He allows them to shed their teenage insecurities and just be.” Scott believes that every person throughout their lives should strive to live the best version of themselves. Time passes much too quickly, she says. “This is what Chris teaches every day,” says Scott, “The students grow because of him.” Even now, Scott can already envision Dayett’s students “transforming into writers, directors, actors, musicians, and artists.” She says, “With his passion, he has changed a program, a community, and has allowed students to believe in their passions.”

It was understood that Dayett would spend a lot of his time during the 2016-17 school year finishing up the “Dorian Gray” musical. This fall, with his musical out of the way, he has turned his full attention to restructuring the Performing Arts Department. “Now that I have gotten to know the students, we’ll see what works,” he said, “The administration has given me the flexibility and support I need to develop a system [for the Performing Arts Department].” He loves being able to “start from scratch.” Whatever he comes up with will have his fingerprints all over it. He has some big ideas. A reading of a list of courses he hopes to add next year leaves one with the impression that students immersing themselves in his courses, will be well grounded in theatre, drama and film making, to mention a few. His advanced theatre course for instance, will emphasize playwriting.

He has already used his expertise to enhance some of his colleagues’ teaching effectiveness. Dayett has filmed student presentations in Lori Galiana’s award winning AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education) Global Perspectives class, later replayed for critiquing by the class. And for Allison Blanco’s Law class, he filmed and produced some remarkably clever and riotous (I have watched them twice) faux commercials by fictional ambulance chasing lawyers, written by the students and directed by Ms. Blanco, another up and comer with big ideas.

And now, Dayett has his choral and theatre students practicing daily after class for the “Willy Wonka” musical he will put on at the end of the month. More on this in the next edition.

Ellie Ball, a star athlete and outstanding student, is one of the beneficiaries of Dayett’s teaching approach. She has landed a solo part in the musical. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Dayett’s chorus class, Ellie said, she never would have tried out for the school play. [In the course of a semester] I went from ‘I don’t sing alone’ to ‘I want a solo,’” Ellie said, “Mr. Dayett is extremely passionate about what he does. He gets students out of their comfort zones and causes them to change their attitudes.”

“Mr. Dayett has brought arts to the school,” Ellie concluded, “He has brought the school up to a whole other level. He has proven that sports and academics isn’t the only thing that makes MIA the best school to go to.” Well said, Ellie.

Next edition – “WILLY WONKA, Can MIA Pull This Off?”

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