How a professional theatre is using performative history to give students hope for their future

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

“If I had history performed for me, I would have remembered it better than a book or a lecture,” reflects Jenna Sulecki. 

She is the writer and director of “Welcome to West Virginia!”, a new play chronicling the state’s history and being performed in schools across the state. 

Jenna Sulecki is the writer/director of “Welcome to West Virginia!”, a new performative history ensemble with a cast of five now making the rounds in schools across the state.

“The goal was to share accurate West Virginia history, but make it fun,” she shares. 

The play just wrapped up a 14-school tour in southern West Virginia as part of Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s (GVT) Educational Touring Initiative. They performed in public and private schools across six counties–Greenbrier, Raleigh, Monroe, Summers, Fayette, and Pocahontas. 

Judging by the amount of laughing, engagement, and questions students ask after watching the play, it’s making a huge impact. 

The importance of arts exposure

According to GVT Interim Executive Director Josh Lapping, “This will be the first time some students are exposed to the performing arts.” He said, “We have a staff member who grew up in West Virginia and didn’t even know there was a live theatre in the state.”

He says educational opportunities such as this play are vital. “Going out into schools and using the arts to reinforce classroom knowledge in a fun, creative way is really important to us as the state’s professional theatre.” 

Sulecki echoes those sentiments, hoping exposure to the arts encourages young people to stay in their home state. “A  lot of young people leave after high school and don’t come back. We’re trying to instill a sense of pride and show them how they can be part of West Virginia’s future.”

History comes to life

In order to instill hope for the future, Sulecki and her team delved into the past. The show highlights famous figures such as Katherine Johnson, Anna Jarvis, Chuck Yeager, Snowbird, and yes…Mothman. 

“We can keep the younger kid’s attention by having Mothman flying around while we teach history,” Sulecki jokes. 

But the show includes other spectacles meant to make history come alive. “We have a big boxing match sequence between John Carlisle and John Fletcher over West Virginia statehood. It’s a lot of fun.” 

Cara Niebling is an actor who guides the narrative of the play. She explains, “The main character moves to West Virginia from New York City. She’s feeling conflicted. Then I show up to inspire her and teach her about West Virginia. By the end of the show, she’s beyond excited to be here.” 

Niebling says performing for a variety of ages of students made word choice important. “We talked a lot about certain word changes when we rehearsed. We tried to make the story attainable and something they can all follow. For my character who has so much information and dates and names, I thought back to my childhood and what I was would’ve responded to.  The funnier and clearer you are, the better kids will grasp it.”

Mallory Topel is the stage manager, who helps bring the story to life. “I get to watch the show, but I also watch the students. Not only are we holding their attention, but they are finding so much joy in each production.”

“We know they are understanding the content because of the questions they ask us on the way out of the room,” Topel says. “I hear students asking really pertinent questions to their teachers after it’s over in their classrooms. Plus, we send out a questionnaire afterwards and the teacher share that with students and then back with us.” 

There’s more where that came from

White the initial 14-stop tour of “Welcome to West Virginia!” is over, there’s more where that came from. 

We are hopeful that we’ll be able to do this tour on a larger scale,” writer and director Jenna Sulecki says. “We are creating a package of workshops and sketch shows that we’ll take to schools.”

The workshops aim to teach core subjects such as math, history, science, music, and even costume design through the lens of mining using theatre. “We will send out a package of these offerings to teachers and principals and offer it as day workshops during the school year. They can book as many or as few as they want.”

Greenbrier Valley Theatre is located in downtown Lewisburg, WV. For more information, visit their website.

Funding to write “Welcome to West Virginia!” was provided by Uncle Larry’s Fund. The tour was funded by Appalachian Forest National Heritage Fund.

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