lifeinmiddlebOne class act: Adam Canterbury (Red Bank Middle School), Spencer Mullen (Thompson Middle School) and Sophia Jackman (Ranney School) are among the local students featured in the original musical LIFE IN THE MIDDLE, going up this weekend at Two River Theater. (Rehearsal photos by Janine Kamouh)


With the official arrival of summer and the much-anticipated winding down of the school year, thousands of area middle schoolers are fully willing and ready to slam shut the yearbook on the 2009-2010 session.

For a select group of local students, however, the middle school experience — complete with shifting alliances, weirdly morphing bodies and classroom politics — is ready to go another round. Beginning with an invitation-only dress rehearsal on Thursday and continuing with four performances through Sunday, a cast of 22 young actors and musicians will be taking the Two River Theater stage in Life in the Middle, an original rock musical that “looks at what it’s really like to be right in the middle,” courtesy of dialogue taken directly from middle schoolers.

With every one of the performers boasting his or her own home-grown fan club, it’s no wonder that the entire (expanded) schedule of shows sold out in a flash. But if director and co-author KJ Sanchez has her druthers, everyone in America will get a chance to catch this oral history-based project in the months and years to come.

owendohertysandrapazOwen Doherty of Rumson and Sandra Paz of Red Bank are just two of the stars of LIFE IN THE MIDDLE, the ensemble piece directed and co-written by KJ Sanchez.

The project represents something of a bittersweet valedictory for Sanchez — as well as the end of an era at Two River Theater Company, where for more than two years the West New York resident has served as associate artistic director (under the tenure of Aaron Posner, whose contract was not renewed for next season). As announced here in redbankgreen, Sanchez departs TRTC at the end of the month to establish her own theatrical company, American Records — a troupe with “a mission to make plays that chronicle our lives — real people, real American stories.”

Among the plays to be developed under the American banner is ReENTRY, which Two River regulars may recall as having premiered at the Bridge Avenue performing arts center in 2009. Sanchez, in collaboration with Emily Ackerman, assembled the acclaimed work from hundreds of hours of interviews with returning Iraq War veterans, officers and family members, and since presented it to audiences of high-ranking Navy and Marine brass, clinicians and family readiness counselors.

“At Quantico, they want to bring it in as part of their post-deployment briefing,” says the  ReEntry director of the play’s ongoing journey. “We’ll be taking it there in August, and to Baltimore’s Center Stage in November.”

Also on the agenda is a new phase of activity centered around Life in the Middle — a musical produced by the Two River Theater EDU department — that Sanchez would like to make available to schools across the continent.

While it’s been likened by some to a war zone, middle school can be genuinely fraught with stress and drama for those who live it — and Sanchez is quick to draw a parallel between the soldiers and the students of the two plays, in that “they each send a message that if you’re going through this sort of thing, you’re not alone.”

lifeinmiddleA Moment of Zen on the “cafegymitorium” set by Donyale Werle: Front, left to right: Fiona Zasowski, Sophia Jackman, Jenna Najjar, Suzie Hicks, Laura Diorio, and Sandra Paz. Back, left to right: Melody Chibnik, Jake Tavill, Nick Piescor, Kyle Ward, and Sophie Halpern.

Middle began life as a piece commissioned by the Sarasota, Florida-based Asolo Rep Theatre, which produced it earlier this year with a cast of ten adult actors portraying kids in their early teens. With musician P.K. Pickens composing the songs, the actors (credited as a group as having co-authored the script with Sanchez) helped to interview a group of Florida students on the experiences and life lessons that comprise the project’s universal core of truth.

When it came time to bring the show to Red Bank, however, Sanchez opted to work with actual middle schoolers — putting out a casting call to schools throughout Monmouth County, and auditioning some 55 hopefuls. The show’s cast — including a rock quintet that boasts Middletown powerchord prodigy Nick Piescor — runs the gamut from young veterans of big-time Two River productions (Jake Tavill from Macbeth, Owen Doherty from Melissa Arctic), to kids who are appearing onstage for the first time anywhere.

Sanchez, who grew up the youngest of twelve children in a New Mexico ranching family (“I felt like I didn’t fit in — the pigs and the steers that I brought to the fair weren’t as good as everyone else’s”) praises her teen/tween performers for their skills, as well as their valued input toward the finalizing of the show’s script, declaring that “I felt very inspired, very hopeful for the future when I met these kids.”

kjsanchezKJ Sanchez is departing her post as associate artistic director at Two River Theater, to further develop LIFE IN THE MIDDLE and other theatrical works.

The director, who credits a favorite teacher with “introducing me to the greater world out there,” also has praise for the mentoring of Posner and the support of the TRTC board — emphasizing that “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without Two River Theater. It’s been better than any grad school.”

Tickets for the four performances of Life in the Middle (Friday, Saturday, Sunday at 7p; Saturday at 2p) are sold out, but you can find out more about other upcoming events at Two River Theater right here. Meanwhile, here’s a full list of the show’s cast members and their school affiliations:

Avon Elementary School: Jon Erik Nielsen

Cedar Drive Middle School: Suzie Hicks, Jenna Najjar, Fiona Zasowsky

Forrestdale Middle School: Owen Doherty, Matthew Hughs, Jake Tavill, Jack Volker, Kyle Ward

Henry Hudson Regional: Dianna DeWitt, Jordan Holaday

Markham Place School: Isabel Wallace

The New School: Melody Chibnik

Ranney School: Sophia Jackman

Red Bank Middle School: Adam Canterbury, Adrian Hernandez, Sandra Paz

Shrewsbury Borough: Sophie Halpern

Thompson Middle School: Laura Diorio, Michael Hopkins, Spencer Mullen, Nick Piescor