Ketchikan High School drama teacher Tommy Varela-Kossak recently announced that the school has been chosen by Disney to be the sole Alaska school to secure the rights to produce the full version of its “Frozen” musical.
Varela-Kossak, in a recent telephone interview, said he learned about the competition for those rights via the Educational Theatre Association, which was co-sponsoring the opportunity with Music Theatre International. MTI holds the rights to many Disney musicals, as well as many other productions in which the Kayhi theater students participate.
Varela-Kossak said that more than 300 schools nationwide applied, and one school per state was chosen.
The theme of the competition was “Love is an Open Door,” Varela-Kossak said.
In his application for the competition, Varela-Kossak described how the Kayhi drama program represents that theme.
“My students love what they do and love this art form,” he wrote. “So much that they fundraise and put in so many extra hours to make sure we can keep doing this. They have opened doors for themselves and for others. The selflessness they show is something I have never experienced in the world of theatre.
“These kids embrace every new person who joins our troupe without hesitation,” he continued. “When I think about Love is an Open Door, I think of these students.”
Varela-Kossak said that he re-introduced a for-credit drama class to Kayhi during the 2021/2022 school year, and additionally led a group of students in an after-school drama club in producing two shows.
In addition to the drama class, there also are English classes now at Kayhi that are drama based, Varela-Kossak said. A play writing and a Shakespeare class are in the works as well.
Varela-Kossak said that he is working to build a full theater program that includes both for-credit classes and the after-school club. He said there have been so many students interested in the program that he plans to add more opportunities, such as offering a stage craft class.
Between his drama classes and his after-school theater club, Varela-Kossak said he has five productions that he and his students are working to produce this school year: “Puffs” in December, “Almost Maine” in January, “Shout” in February, “James and the Giant Peach” in March and “Head Over Heels” in May.
Another way that Varela-Kossak is working to involve Kayhi students in theater is a planned trip in mid-March to Chicago to attend stage productions.
When asked what his motivation has been to build the drama program at Kayhi, Varela-Kossak described several factors.
There is a large group of students at Kayhi who love theater, Varela-Kossak said, and they didn’t have an outlet for that interest previously. First City Players has offered their ArtsCool program annually for youths, which is valuable, but is a more short-term event.
The growing theater opportunities at Kayhi can “give kids a program that is theirs, that they get to be a part of 365 day a year,” Varela-Kossak said, adding that he thinks that “is invaluable.”
He added, “a lot of the kids who are a part of our program and in my classes and who audition and work on our shows are kids who don’t already participate in a lot of other activities, so for them, this is their thing — and so it keeps them involved, it keeps them engaged, it keeps them showing up to school and passing their classes. So it’s a huge benefit, and it’s also given a lot of kids a sense of community who maybe didn’t have one before this program was being built.”
Another motivation for him is that he knows of many studies that have proven the importance of arts education for students.
When asked why securing the rights for the screenplay of “Frozen” was particularly compelling to him, Varela-Kossak said he’s been a fan of the story since the movie first was released in 2013.
“The show’s about acceptance — whether that be acceptance of others, acceptance of self — and diversity, and how when we are accepting of our diversity is really when we can be successful and we can create beautiful things, and when I think about the students we have, that’s such a testament to what they do and what they love, is creating those spaces for each other and for new people to try new things that are really scary,” Varela-Kossak said.
The movie “Frozen” was part of his current students’ childhoods, he added — these are the kids who dressed up as “Frozen” characters for Halloween, and sang the songs from the show.
“It’s pretty sentimental I think, for all of us,” Varela-Kossak said.
He explained that as they launch into the planning stage for the “Frozen” stage production, he will be meeting with Disney and MTI representatives to lay out a plan. He sees the Kayhi production as opening in the fall or winter of 2023.
Varela-Kossak said that Kayhi’s production of “Frozen” is planned to include a broad spectrum not only of Kayhi students, but of community members as well.
“We’re going to make it a big community project, so we’re bringing in artists to come help out with different aspects — some puppets and stuff like that,” Varela-Kossak explained.
He also noted that his students who are seniors this year, who will have moved on from Kayhi this spring, have a different outlook on their involvement in the “Frozen” production.
“It’s kind of like their legacy, that they worked hard and dedicated their time so that future generations can have opportunities like this,” Varela-Kossak said. “They were pretty excited to still be a part of it.”