Utica Schools Teacher Donates Hundreds of Unpaid Hours Preparing for Shrek the Musical

Utica Schools Teacher Donates Hundreds of Unpaid Hours Preparing More than 120 Students for Shrek the Musical

UTICA, Mich. — February 19, 2019 — Kirstin Carolin has intensely studied everything about the fictional character Shrek. That’s what you do when you undertake one of the biggest challenges of her teaching career. Carolin, a 20-year Utica School District teacher is the theatre director at Utica Henry Ford II High School, and is taking on the daunting task of directing the Shrek the Musical in her “free” time with no budget.

The play will be performed on March 21–23 at 7 p.m. and March 24 at 2 p.m. at Ford High School.

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Producing a high school play that includes roughly 120 students is a massive responsibility but there’s much more that goes into the planning than meets the eye. Once the cast was selected last December, Carolin and everyone else involved in Shrek the Musical have been rehearsing until 5 p.m. an average of 4–5 days a week with the expectation those rehearsals will in all likelihood go to 9 p.m. as opening night gets closer.

Carolin relies not only on the students and volunteers, but a five-member board that helps her with the performance each year. Even then, the weeks leading up to the final performances are personally stressful, as she may work 12 or more hours most weekdays and many hours on the weekend without overtime. Yet the Macomb Township resident and Utica Ford alum wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kirstin Carolin, theatre director for Utica Henry Ford II High School

Kirstin Carolin, theatre director for Utica Henry Ford II High School

“There’s something really magical about creating something that didn’t exist from scratch,” Kirstin said. “We are so reliant on each other to do things right that it’s the best example of teamwork in high school I can think of. Everyone has a job and our students are amazing at how they pull it off.”

But it’s the finer details of the musical where Carolin spends countless hours — hundreds of them in fact — planning for every detail imaginable. That includes budgeting, painstakingly choosing the right costumes, selecting music, securing volunteers, arranging for food for the students during the week of performances, and even helping to ensure students have rides home. And add all those responsibilities to the fact that Carolin is also the prime fundraiser for the production, because the school has no money to support it, and it’s become a full-time advocation added to her already full-time teaching job.

“What many people don’t realize is that this will cost us about $30,000 to put on, and before we even select the cast it costs up to $5,000 just to get the licensing rights,” said Carolin, who is also a board member of the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Committee and Michigan Speech Coaches, Inc. “Before we finalize the performance itself we need figure out if we have the space and the budget because we don’t receive any money from the school district to put this on.”

As a result, paying for costumes often includes multiple trips with students to local thrift stores. The final costumes require a level of talent and creativity from students and volunteers to be utilized.

While ticket sales generally make up for much of the required budget spend, students are asked to pay a fee to help further offset the costs. “I’m not a stagehand so we’re fortunate to have some really smart kids helping us figure out where we can save money,” Carolin said.

The cast of  Shrek  for Utica Henry Ford II High School

The cast of Shrek for Utica Henry Ford II High School

The annual theatrical event at Ford, and other similar performances throughout the Utica school district is invaluable for students, Carolin says. Some of her graduates have majored in Stage Management, Lighting and Design, Music and more at the college level after being involved in theatre in high school. Shrek the Musical could be the most prominent after-school activity many students participate in during the year, she adds. The weeks and months spent preparing goes beyond the stage, however, as it also gives student an opportunity to make new friends and become a more significant part of the school community.

“Not many of these kids play football or are involved in other sports so it’s a place where they can come and be themselves,” Carolin said. “No one gets cut or turned away. Anyone who wants to give their time will get a role or an opportunity to be a part of the production.”

And the benefits for the students go even farther, says Carolin. Being involved in Shrek the Musical allows the students to develop problem-solving skills and improve their ability to communicate with others.

“If we have an issue, I often need to rely on students to solve it,” Carolin said. “It gives them an opportunity to fail in the months and weeks leading up to the performances. We all learn from our failures. But it’s amazing that when it’s time for the curtain to go up for real, these kids don’t fail.”

And while she is entering the home stretch of her preparation for Shrek this year, Carolin already has her eye on another production for next year. It turns out that unpaid overtime really is a 12-month job.