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An Artist’s Journey From Studio to Stage by Mary Davis

03/01/2017 06:22AM ● Published by Nancy Babin

Gallery: The King & [8 Images] Click any image to expand.

There is no way Renee Wilbas is a mere mortal. How does one art teacher mobilize an entire school, its faculty and administration, and enough local know-how to produce a first-rate school musical on an all-volunteer budget? How did a talented art teacher without a single prerequisite in performing arts manage to complete her thirteenth production in musical theater with The King and I, shown in February to a full house at the Fort Walton Beach Civic Auditorium?  Wilbas, with her ample talent, vision, and intuition, has at her core not only a great love for kids but an unshakeable will. Where there’s a Wilbas, there’s a way.  

It all began thirteen years ago when Wilbas invited fellow Saint Mary School teacher Sister Robert Anne Jones to see her niece perform in Disney’s The Jungle Book. “What impressed me most about the play,” Wilbas says, “was not so much the acting and the singing by the kids, as awesome as they were, but the gigantic sense of accomplishment and pride showing in the faces of those young actors. I wanted that for our kids! So I went to Regina and pitched the idea.”

Regina Nadicksbernd, principal of Saint Mary Catholic School at the time, recalls, “Renee was very convincing. She promised she’d try something simple that first year. I had no idea of the scope of her vision. I was just interested in giving Saint Mary School kids as much time on the stage as possible. And that was my only stipulation, that any child wanting to participate would be afforded the chance to stand in front of an audience.” She paused and laughed, “Oh, and it can’t cost us any money! This thing’s gonna have to break even.”

With the administrative green light, Wilbas began putting her vision to the test. Her “something simple” would be the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz and would feature two rotating main casts and about a hundred students in the 3rd through 8th grades. “It’s astonishing to me.” she said, “the many people who show up to make this thing work, from the talented pianist Joel Lane to the high school student alumni who come back each year as make-up artists and stage crew. Everyone is so giving and so amazing.”

Several faculty members contributed scores of volunteer hours in the months and weeks leading up to each play. Music teacher Kay Graves and kindergarten teacher Nancy Humphrey helped with choreography, music and solos. Monica Rothrock from Pre-K helped paint sets designed by Wilbas, and Sister Jones lent all kinds of moral support and kept the troops in order. Parents bearing Jo-Ann’s Fabrics coupons came out of the woodwork to lend their sewing talents, while dads showed up with table saws, hammers, and scrap lumber. Julie Adams, mother to four Saint Mary alumni, contributed costumes in all thirteen musicals, with dozens and dozens of skirts, pants, turbans, and dresses to her credit.

Helping kids find their voices through artistic expression is positively foundational for Wilbas. Whether through fine art or on the stage, she loves to hear a kid say, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that.” It is clear her cast of students respect her and are eager to impress her. Angelo Bumphus has auditioned for and performed in her last five musicals, this year landing the title role in The King and I. Not usually one to make a stir or draw attention to himself in the classroom, Angelo truly shines when performing.

“She can be tough with them,” says Nancy, “but they get it. They know there’s this seamless vision in her head and they want to meet that vision. They want to be pushed because they too become really passionate about theater, and they want to be the very best they can be.”

Principal Amy Akins echoes her predecessor in both her support of theater and her gratitude to Wilbas. “I admire this teacher more than I can adequately express. She takes students from all these different backgrounds and opens up a whole new world for them to experience and even conquer. Kids always come away from her productions empowered and ready to meet new challenges.”

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