BYU theatre education graduate Summer Lewis brings her passion for live theatre to U.S. military families stationed in Asia
For the past ten years, the practical experience Summer Lewis gained as a theatre education major at BYU has come in handy in an unexpected way. When her husband Ben was hired in 2010 to teach for the Department of Defense Education Activities in Yokosuka, Japan, they worked together to build an extracurricular drama club for the students at Kinnick High School.
Since its inception, the program has enjoyed real and lasting success. Six kids auditioned for the club’s first show, “Blithe Spirit.” In contrast, 60 students attended recent auditions for the fall production of “Little Mermaid, Jr.”
“Our program focuses on providing performing opportunities for middle and high school students that are also appealing to our community of military families. We are the only local source of live English-speaking theatre in our area,” Lewis said. “We have also worked hard to make sure we present one show a year to the two local military elementary schools so those kids can be exposed to the joy of live theater.”
The club participates in three shows per year. In addition to a musical, the students perform a one-act play for the Far East Drama Festival (which includes 13 military schools throughout Japan, Korea, and Guam), and a project called “Story Machine,” where stories written by local elementary students are turned into comedic mini-plays and songs.
Lewis’s job as a facilities stage manager at BYU, plus her experience with mainstage productions and student shows, prepared her to act as producer, director, teacher and designer in her current role. “One of my favorite experiences at BYU was being a member of the Young Company cast of ‘Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,’” she said. “It was such a joy to perform for so many kids and see them interact with a story as it is being performed. It inspired me to create a drama club program that would also visit elementary schools to teach and inspire students.”
Working with military families doesn’t always make it easy for the club to maintain healthy membership numbers. “Honestly, it feels like we are rebuilding our program every other year,” Lewis said. “At least one-third of our students move every year, and we literally pray for more to move into our school.”
Lewis, who has four children, confesses that her students become like family members in the time that they work together. Her children attend rehearsals and form friendships with many of the student actors.
“I get the greatest joy from seeing students come in with zero performing experience, feeling insecure and nervous, and helping guide them into self-assured performers whose smiles and laughter (and sometimes tears) light up our stage,” Lewis said. “I treasure the notes and emails we get from former students who tell us how performing with us has impacted their lives by helping them feel safe and welcome, giving them tools to develop self-confidence and communication skills that translate into the real world.”
In March the students were preparing to perform at the Far East Festival in South Korea when they got the news that the festival was canceled due to the growing pandemic. “The next day those heartbroken students went out and gave the best performance I had ever seen from them,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t have been prouder. I sat in the back and cried, not for the lost opportunities, but because these kids knew how to rise from adversity and grow.”
With the uncertainty of pandemic precautions still lingering, Lewis hopes the club can soon resume after-school rehearsals. “We’re planning on creating a children’s book adaptation using puppets so we can wear masks without being distracting, and perhaps pre-record dialogue for performances because we don’t have microphones,” she said.
The experience of teaching drama students overseas has forever changed Lewis and her family for the better. “Teaching for the DODEA has opened up so many doors for us around the world, and teaching theatre has helped me to open up doors for my students. As long as we stay in Yokosuka, we will continue to run the program,” Lewis said. “We have no intention of quitting anytime soon. Teaching theatre is a gift you give that never stops giving back.”