Fifth-grader steps up to help bring play to Early Elementary

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Peter Pan, played by A.J. Tidwell, tries to pull Wendy, played by Brynlee McDermed, to safety after hearing pirates coming during a rehearsal of the play "Pan!" at Early Elementary School Friday afternoon. The play is being performed by a nine-member cast of fifth-graders.
The "Pan!" cast of Early Elementary School fifth-graders is pictured on stage before beginning a rehearsal after school Friday afternoon.
Director Caitlyn Tidwell watches a rehearsal of "Pan!" Friday afternoon at Early Elementary School.

EARLY — Given his heritage, it’s no surprise that 11-year-old A.J. Tidwell claims theatre is in his blood.

“My whole family revolves around theatre,” the Early Elementary School fifth-grader explained.

A.J. was new to the school this year after transferring from Victory Life Academy. He hoped a theatre class might become part of the school, and his interest sparked a chain of events — beginning with a letter A.J. wrote to the school’s principal, Julie Schafer — that led to the after-school production of the play “Pan!” 

The play has a nine-member cast of fifth-graders including, of course, A.J., who plays Peter Pan. The play by Craig Sodoro is a shortened adaption of the Peter Pan story.

The cast will perform the play for family and friends at 6 p.m. Monday, and will put on additional performances after STAAR testing is finished.

“Pan!” is directed by A.J.’s mom, Caitlyn Tidwell, a veteran stage performer and director who works as the theatre director at Early High School. A.J.’s dad, Shade, is a sheriff’s deputy who has performed in plays at the Lyric Theatre.  A.J. has also gained stage experience at the Lyric.

As the cast prepared to begin a rehearsal Friday afternoon in the school’s cafeteria — which includes a stage area — Schafer explained how A.J.’s letter to her led to the play.

“A.J. wrote a letter to me and asked for me to consider there being a theatre class here at the elementary,” Schafer said. “I talked to him and told him that I appreciated his passion about theatre. He was willing to vocalize that. He wasn’t scared to ask for something.”

Schafer presented the letter to the Early ISD superintendent Dr. Dewayne Wilkins and the school board, and the superintendent “gave me his blessing,” Schafer said.

“And lo and behold, after auditions we have a cast and we have a performance scheduled,” Schafer said.

While an in-school theatre class per se was not created, the after-school theatre group will include future productions, Schafer said.

Before stepping onto the stage to begin a rehe, A.J. quickly explained how he got the idea for a play.

“I’m new here, so it was pretty rough on me,” A.J. said. “I decided, ‘you know what? Why don’t we have a theatre class here?’ So I decided to write a letter to the school board, and I was like, oh, they probably get a ton of these, I’m not going to get answered or anything.

“But then apparently they really liked the idea and so … skip ahead three months, and apparently we’re doing some theatre production that I had no idea about. We had a hard time deciding between Robin Hood and this one other thing, but then we decided Peter Pan. So here we are. Not as many people auditioned as we expected, but we have managed to make it work and it’s really awesome.”

When someone suggested the articulate, engaging 11-year-old is mature for his age, A.J., responded, “oh! Well, thank you … I’m not mature.”

“You are, A.J.,” Schafer said.

A.J.’s mom, Caitlyn, noted that A.J. “comes from a long line of theatre and speech teachers, and people have been talking to him like he was grown his whole life.”

Caitlyn Tidwell said didnot  know, at first, about her son’s letter.

“He told me ‘Mrs. Scahfer took my letter to the school board and they liked it,’” Tidwell said. “Oh! OK! What are we talking about? I emailed (the principal)  and said ‘are we doing a play? Do I need to help with that?’

“She said ‘I was just going to ask you.’ It was great. I’m so excited. Hopefully it’s going the be the first of many.”

Schafer had more to say about A.J. and the cast.

“The kids have done a great job,” Schafer said. “We kind of did all this very quickly, and so they have only had about three weeks to practice. They’ve done a great job of putting this together.”

Schafer said she’s told A.J. that he has “pulled passion out of other kids because some of these other kids would have never voiced their interest. Probably until they got to seventh or eighth grade, we wouldn’t have known that they were really interested in theatre.

“I’m so proud of him. You could see his passion in his writing, and he was brave enough to come and ask for something. He’s an incredible young man anyway. This is just another way that he that hows how strong of a leader he is. He’s a great leader for our fifth grade and he is leading this performance. His leadership is in the play, it’s in the classroom, in the halls. He’s an exceptional kid.”

A.J. added, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the letter. I was like, will they read it? I wanted there to be theatre. So I at least had to try. And look where it got me!”