Rob Swanson takes students on a theater production ‘journey’
NEWARK – Once a year, the cafeteria at Holy Angels School becomes a theater, and the eighth-grade students are characters from Elizabethan England. It has been that way since 1998, thanks to the school’s Renaissance man, Rob Swanson.
Swanson taught music at Holy Angels from 1989-2000, but he has stayed on once a week to bring theater, music and dance to eighth-grade students. He loves watching the students’ creative juices flow and imparting the importance of the arts.
“Creativity is something (students) need,” said Swanson. “It teaches all the same concepts. It teaches logistical thinking, it teaches artistic thinking. That’s paramount to an educated society.”
The journey begins each fall with a trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. From there, the students put together a production that culminates in March with a dinner theater for students, parents and faculty. More than 200 people attend while enjoying a meal served in Renaissance style.
Swanson asks the students to come up with a plot each year, with the only requirement being that the situation be historically possible and take place in the time of Queen Elizabeth or King Henry.
“I write an original script based on the plot, and then we start hashing it out,” he said. “I try to bring in historically possible characters.”
In this year’s story, Queen Elizabeth and her ladies in waiting have come to Possumshire – Holy Angels is on Possum Park Road – looking for possible suitors for the ladies and herself. In the plays, the queen is always single.
There, they meet the O’Neill clan, three Irish brothers who are seeking to undo the Statutes of Drogheda, which said that Ireland’s parliament could not meet until it received approval from the English parliament. One of the O’Neill boys decides he’ll try to become one of the suitors in an attempt to get the statutes overturned.
This year’s dinner theater is on March 17, so they worked the Irish into the plot.
Students choreograph the fight scenes and work their way up from foam swords to wood to stage swords made of metal. “When it’s well-choreographed, it’s exciting,” Swanson said.
Every student has at least one line in the play, and the major parts are decided by audition. All the students learn to play an instrument, sing in front of an audience, dance and speak in public, Swanson said.
“And at the end of the day, everybody walks away from here having their self-confidence boosted,” he said.
Samantha Watkins, an eighth-grader who portrays a townsperson in the play and is also a soloist, said Swanson adds variety to Tuesdays.
“Mr. Rob is a very unique personality. He’s very fun. He’s very gifted,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity that eighth-graders get to experience here.”
Swanson graduated from West Chester University with a degree in music education. He plays the upright and electric bass professionally and is in a number of ensembles. He has toured all over the world.
He has taught all grades as a substitute teacher over the years and says junior high is his favorite.
“They have an energy that when it’s tapped correctly, it’s like nothing else.”
And they will bring that energy to a pretty harrowing swordfight in less than two months.