CA Curious

A Taste of the Arts

October 5, 2023

You’ve seen the emails. Maybe you’ve purchased tickets for a show. Perhaps you’ve visited the silent auction and checked out the raffle item. But what is A Taste of the Arts?

Our fall community-building events have one primary goal: to foster a sense of connection amongst our families, students, employees, and community partners. That might be created through a reception, or a community game night, or perhaps, as it is this year, through an arts showcase (or should I say extravaganza?).

When we first began brainstorming a dinner theater, our eyes immediately became bigger than our stomachs (pun intended!). We quickly realized we couldn’t stop with a stage performance. There were too many other artistic talents in our midst! What about our pianists? Our string students, dancers, visual artists, and our behind-the-scenes arts technicians?

More than a mere taste, we quickly found ourselves looking at a Thanksgiving Feast of the Arts—an endeavor both exhilarating and daunting.

However, thanks to the remarkable creative vision of Glen Matthews and his team, we found ways to bring this vision to life. Weaving together the incredible talents of our students, the generosity of our parents and our alumni, and the extraordinary effort of employees, the Taste of the Arts is a 4-night showstopping showcase. More than that, however, it is a testament to our amazing community—to our many talents, the strength of our connection to each other, and to CA’s mission.

Imagine it. Walking up, you are greeted with a giant Charger puppet. Yes, you read that correctly: a puppet. Too tall to bring inside, it dances across the Quad welcoming you, up the red carpet, to a magical evening.

When you enter Berger Hall, your eyes need time to adjust. Do you direct your attention to the walls adorned with original pieces of work created by our students? Or to the baskets up for auction, created with time and love by groups of parents from each grade? Perhaps, instead, you check in, chatting with friends, as music floats around you (possibly even played by a group of talented young people).

While you wait for your party to arrive, you peruse the auction table and look over the details of our featured raffle. A $20,000 trip to France? Your mind whirls at the possibilities. Yes, please!

As you picture yourself in Paris, maybe you wander towards the balcony. What’s that? Scarf dancers? Yes! It is. Performing before dinner on Friday and Saturday, these performers stretch your imagination as they glide through the space below.

Bringing you back to reality, a student donned in a Taste of the Arts t-shirt—perhaps one of our many performers or theater technicians (be sure to ask!)—shares news that the doors have opened. It is time for dinner.

You make your way down the steps of the theater to your seat. But wait! You aren’t sitting in the audience, are you? No. You go up to the stage where tables are set up all around…another stage? Yes. Another one! Built on top of this one.

Settling into your seat, you take in the view, noticing the flowers (ahem…handmade by our students). You greet your tablemates. Perhaps you’re next to a parent who helped with costumes. You might have

an alum, who has returned to campus after missing out on art performances during the pandemic. Or maybe you brought a full table of guests to support someone, on stage or behind the scenes.

Returning from the buffet, you notice your placemat, featuring the names and logos of so many businesses who have helped make this performance possible. (Don’t worry—it’s okay if you spill on your friends’ business logo! We have new placemats for each night.)

After dinner and dessert, as our talented pianists play, you find yourself relaxing. The lights dim and figures appear on the stage. As the lights come up, you pause. The faces you see – why, it’s the same faces of those who helped you to your seat and bussed your table! How did they get up there so fast? As soon as they start to sing, you are immediately lost in the show.

At the end of the night, you’ll go home full—not just from the delicious food, but from the creativity and talents of this community. You’ll overflow with appreciation, not only for the magic of the final event, but for the months of creativity, collaboration, and innovation that took to bring it to fruition—for a truly mission-driven, beautiful taste of all the arts here at Cary Academy.

So, I must express my deep appreciation to everyone in this community who gave of themselves and pulled together to make this magical event happen.

(Bummed you missed out on an incredible evening? You still have a chance! Limited first-come, first-served tickets are still available for our Friday performance.)

Written by Ali Page, Director of Development

CA Curious

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CA Curious

There’s a Crackle in the Air

October 13, 2022

What does one do in the lobby?

Sixteen 6th graders and I found ourselves pondering this question recently. We were about to embark upon a tour of “The Playground”—the theater facility within Berger Hall—as part of a five-class rotation of the Arts Minors program. Seated on the lobby floor, my new friends rattled off responses:

Wait. Gather with friends. Study. Purchase a ticket. Read the program. Collaborate. Rehearse. Have refreshments. Enjoy intermission. View art. Celebrate.

They were right. On any given day, the lobby of Berger Hall serves these and many other functions.

I shared with the students one of my favorite things about this special space: the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I spend a large portion of my day at CA in an intentionally windowless world. Storytelling in the theater is dependent upon our ability to control light and, ultimately, what an audience sees and doesn’t see. But that’s not the real reason. I love looking through the glass of the lobby and seeing the upper school on one side and the Middle School on the other. I’m reminded that Berger Hall is a bridge between the two schools, and the Arts at CA provide each of us with the opportunity to connect.

As a faculty member entering his 25th year of teaching at CA and as the new chair of the Arts department, I can attest to the effectiveness of this beautiful bridge and its impact on students. One need only peek into the studios, practice rooms, and brave spaces around campus to witness its power—devoted faculty and curious young people engaging, questioning, risking all, shedding inhibitions, and revealing their authentic selves.

The energy is palpable, and this year, you can feel it crackle even more than usual. Why?

New Faculty

  • We’ve welcomed four passionate artist-educators into our vibrant Arts family: Alexa Velez (MS Dance), Dee Elmore (MS Digital Arts), Kirsten Thompson (Tech Assistant), and Ty Van de Zande (MS Digital Arts).

New Program Offerings

  • After a brief pause, dance has returned to the Middle School, and we’re excited to see the discipline eventually grow to include upper school opportunities.
  • Additionally, we’ve introduced Digital Arts as an Arts Major option for 7th and 8th grades, while also creating a 7th grade section of Video Production.
  • In the Upper School, imaginative electives and independent studies continue to grow out of student interest and conversations with faculty. In fact, the Design Lab on the lower level of Berger Hall—currently home for the Teamship portion of our 9th grade Art & Design experience—is being reconfigured to house new technology for the 3D Game Design class!

Live Performances Return

  • While we were able to offer limited live performance opportunities for our students and the community last spring, we’re thrilled to return to a full concert/performance season this year. It all kicks off with Something Wicked, an immersive and interactive haunted theater experience featuring students in grades 6 through 12.
  • Performances will be offered Thursday, 10/27 through Saturday, 10/29 just in time for Halloween. Look for ticket information in next week’s CA Weekly!

Gradeless Framework Pilot

Under the thoughtful guidance of CA’s Dean of Faculty Martina Greene, the Arts department has made a
commitment to pilot a new gradeless framework for all Arts classes, emphasizing the importance of the following departmental beliefs:

  • Art making is essential to student learning and growth.
  • Our studios and classrooms are brave spaces where students discover techniques and skills to create original, exciting, and impactful works.
  • It’s in these spaces that the process of creating encourages play, curiosity, experimentation and risk-taking.

Moving forward, students will receive either a Pass or Fail at the end of marking periods. In addition to the P/F, teachers will provide students with feedback specific to their skill development and progress toward curricular goals.

Assignments will continue to be recorded in Blackbaud, and teacher feedback will address two areas: submission status and student progress.

  • Submission Status. Students submitting work on time receive a “1.” When work is not turned in, the student receives a “0.” Students will be encouraged to work with their teachers to resolve any missing assignments. As a department guideline, students will need to resolve all “0’s” by the end of the marking period to receive a Pass.
  • Student Progress. A rubric will be attached to the assignment. Students and parents will be able to access the rubric in the gradebook for individual feedback on assignment objectives, skills, etc.

As you access the gradebook in Blackbaud throughout the year, please remember that any numerical points and percentages seen (e.g., 1/1 100% or 0/1 0%) indicate submission status only. Notations of M or L for missing or late work may also appear. Teachers will communicate discipline-specific information as necessary, and students and parents are encouraged to reach out with questions or concerns.

No wonder there’s a crackle in the air! I hope you feel it the next time you enter Berger Hall, and I invite you to find your own way to contribute to its intensification. When you do visit, look for me in the lobby. I’ll be there looking for an opportunity to connect and dreaming of the next big adventure.

Written by Glen Matthews, Theater Teacher and Art Department Chair

Faculty Reflections

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CA Curious

Coming Home

Bella Nesbeth ’22


CA Junior’s one-act plays earn accolades

May 6, 2021

Congratulations to Bella Nesbeth ’22 on being selected as a featured playwright for Burning Coal Theatre Company’s KidsWrite Festival, streaming on stage May 28-29, 2021.

Nesbeth’s one-act play, Queen of the Night tells the story of singer Whitney Houston’s early career.

Later in the summer, Burning Coal will produce a second of Nesbeth’s plays, A Tale of Two Stops, which explores the duality of the American experience, divided along racial lines. Similar events on a single night take very different paths for two families – one Black and one white – in a play inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Inspired to write the play after seeing Burning Coal’s call for submissions on Twitter, A Tale of Two Stops is Nesbeth’s first serious foray into writing for the stage. “I really enjoy Broadway musicals, but I don’t consider myself a singer or an actress. So, I thought, ‘why don’t I try and write my own play?’” One Tuesday evening, in order to give her sister, Cici some privacy while she prepared for the SAT in their shared bedroom, Bella sat down and wrote the play in a single four-hour session.

“I kept thinking about how, in police brutality cases, people always seem to say, ‘well, if they were white, this wouldn’t have happened.’ So, I wanted to explore the exact same situation, but with characters of two different races,” explains Nesbeth.

Nesbeth is currently working with directors Eric Kildow and Amy Lloyd to adapt A Tale of Two Stops for production. It and other KidsWrite plays written by Triangle area 6th-12th grade students will be presented via streaming, free of charge, on Friday and Saturday, May 28 and 29, 2021 at 7:00pm on Burning Coal’s website.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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The cast of The Theory of Relativity


Meet the Company of ‘The Theory of Relativity’

February 25, 2021

The cast and crew of this year’s Upper School extracurricular theater production have been in rehearsals for just over a month and are looking forward to sharing a new musical theater piece with the CA community.

The Theory of Relativity by Drama Desk Award nominees Neil Bartram and Brian Hill is a song cycle inspired by the life experiences of college students and created with young performers in mind.  Through songs and monologues, the characters experience “the joys and heartbreaks, the liaisons and losses, the inevitability and wonder of human connection.” [mitshows.com]

While there will be no live performances, the company will be recording the production over a series of Flex Days in April. Tickets to view the completed production online will go on sale at the end of April.

The sixteen-member cast includes Alex Lim ‘22, Arielle Curtis ‘21, Brandon Yi ‘21, Chioma Modilim ‘22, Claire Ferris ‘21, Clay Thornton ‘21, Eden Rosenbaum ‘21, Hannah Gordon ‘21, Jordan Miller ‘22, Kathryn Chao ‘21, Koen Chao ‘23, Kyle Murphy ‘21, Mickey Lewis ‘23, Samantha Hoffman ‘21, Sara Martin ‘21, and Vibhav Nandagiri ‘21.

Christina Polge ‘22, Frances Smyth ‘24, and Riley Moore ‘23 are Stage Managers. The Tech/Production crew includes Abby Smetana ‘23, Bella Huang ’24, Claire Moorhead ‘24, Hanorah Alapati ’24, Jay Sihm ‘23, Kendyl George ‘22, Laila Taylor ‘24, Nathan Rudy ‘23, Nikhil Jagannath ‘23, Renn Guard ‘22, Samantha Dorfman ‘23, and Vikram Kommareddi ‘23.

The orchestra features Gwynn Nowell ‘21, Joshua Kendall ‘23, Marvin Koonce ‘21, Oliver Wang ‘22, Phoebe Ellison ‘21, William Coley ‘22, and Xavier deSouza ’21.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

CA and NC State co-host USAYPT

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Aaron Harrington

Alumni Spotlight

Role of a lifetime

February 10, 2021

One of Broadway’s rising stars, Aaron Harrington ‘10 has accomplished in just a few short years what some actors might not in a lifetime. Now, having landed two major leading roles, one alongside a Grammy-nominated cast, Harrington eagerly awaits a return to the stage in a post-COVID world. He’s impassioned and ready to take on another big role—as an influencer activist on a quest to transform the industry he loves.

Taking the leap

Humble, grateful, and quick to count his blessings, Harrington is the first to admit that his creative and meteoric trajectory is perhaps not the norm—a far-cry, even, from the trope of the long-suffering artist.

Graduating from Shaw University in 2015 with a degree in mass communications, Harrington initially pushed aside early dreams of a career in performing. He planned, instead, to parlay his love of music and theater into a marketing career in the entertainment industry. Like so many artists, he set his sights on New York City—ostensibly to pursue a job with a large public relations firm.

It was a daunting transition—a major leap of faith—made possible by his mother and uncle, who, unbeknownst to him, purchased and presented him with a one-way ticket to the city.

“They conspired to push me to follow my dreams,” he reflects in hindsight, and you can hear the smile in his voice. “They knew that there was nothing left for me in Durham.”
Their bold strategy would coincide with the PR job falling through—happily, in retrospect—on his arrival to New York. And then, serendipity: a friend—a choreographer with whom he had worked on a community theater production of RENT in Raleigh his senior year—forwarded the call for auditions for the national tour. Harrington leaped
at the chance.

Familiar with the role, Harrington “showed up to the audition with nothing but my voice. I later found out was probably the craziest thing I could have done—to go to a New York audition unprepared.”

It was a huge risk—and one that paid off.

Mere months after arriving in New York, Harrington landed his first professional gig—bringing his signature baritone to the role of Tom Collins in the yearlong National 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT. RENT­—A Tony-award-winning modern-day retelling of La Bohème­—follows a group of young artists as they pursue their dreams against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

RENT was my first big role, and I still get a lot of grief for it. I consider myself very, very blessed—not a lot of people can book something big within their first year of moving to New York City,” reflects Harrington. “I still to this day can’t believe it happened, but it did.”

Finding the spark

In truth, Harrington’s foray into musical theater is a relatively new pursuit in a longer creative journey, a return to a passion first ignited at CA that had long been pushed to the back burner.

Harrington, who grew up in Durham, transferred to CA in ninth grade from Durham Nativity School, a smaller independent school. He credits navigating CA’s larger, tight-knit community with the support of his fellow students and teachers with instilling in him a strong sense of confidence that empowered him to pursue his interests. He threw himself into the community, playing in both traditional band and jazz band and singing in chorus. An athlete, he wrestled and threw shot put for track and field.

“Cary Academy was able to take this really full of life kid and embrace him,” recalls Harrington. “I transferred into this community of kids that had been together since Middle School, but they welcomed me. It is an experience that I cherish.” He is still friends with many of his former classmates, many of whom were in the audience when RENT landed at the Durham Performing Arts Center in 2016.

At CA, Harrington got his first introduction to musical theater, albeit an initially reluctant one. “We did a production of Les Misérables in chorus. And, if I am being honest, I had no interest in doing it,” he reflects with a laugh. “But it was for a grade, so of course I did. After the production, I thought ‘that was actually really cool.’”

A trip to see Wicked at the Durham Performing Arts Center courtesy of then-Head of Upper School Mitch McGuigan would seal the deal: “Just watching the magic unfold on that stage—it was another spark.”

On graduation, Harrington headed to Shaw University, nursing a dream to be a backup singer and primed to pursue a degree in music. It was an important decision in his life.
“The dynamic at Cary Academy, a predominantly white institution, versus Shaw a historically black university—they were completely different,” offers Harrington. “It was nice to have that balance; it kept me grounded. I learned a lot at Cary Academy, and I went on to learn more at Shaw, not only academics, but culturally. At Shaw, I was diving back into some of the things that I was familiar with, had grown up with.”

Ultimately, a change in major his senior year would prove fortuitous, opening room in his schedule to return to musical theater. Over the next two years, he sought out opportunities in community musical theater, including Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park’s annual musical A Christmas Carol that played at DPAC and Raleigh’s Progress Energy Center, and a foreshadowing production of RENT with the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.

In that work, he discovered a true passion­—a spark of interest fanned into full flame.

“Music had always been my outlet, but to combine singing and acting, to have fun on stage, to dress up and be able to look through the lens of someone else and get that story for trade—there is nothing like it.”

Just do it

Harrington, who has debilitating stage fright, credits his willingness to take risks, be vulnerable, and lean into fear as the secrets to his success. The urgency of the pandemic has only served to deepen his resolve to pursue his dreams fearlessly.

“It sounds cliché, I know,” offers Harrington. “But life is short and unpredictable. COVID has shown us that anything can happen—life can go any kind of way with little warning. So, if you have a dream, embrace it fully—embrace the fear, the excitement, the anxiety. Take the leap, follow your passion—just do it.”

The lessons of mortality that the pandemic has cruelly taught for so many are those that Harrington himself learned early, with the death of his father when he was a senior in college. It was a dark, but transformative time.

“My father’s death pushed me to stop taking things so easily, to stop just riding the wave. It made me put myself out there instead,” offers Harrington. “That is what I’m currently doing. No matter how scared I am, I just go for it. My dad always wanted his kids to be great—so I’m always trying to make my dad proud, make my family proud.”

That fearless attitude was instrumental in helping him to land his second big role—as Audrey II in the off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors—in early March of 2020. “I found out I booked it March 1, we rehearsed for two weeks, and then, then the world shut down.”

“At first, we thought we’d be back in three months—and that kept me going,” says Harrington. “But then, before you know it, we are hitting a year of life in this pandemic. Thankfully, our producers are committed; they’ve let us know that everyone aims to get the production back up and running. Knowing that in the back of my mind, it makes my future look just as bright as before—and it gives me hope that we will come back stronger.”

Actor to activist

For Harrington—who has discovered an activist calling during his pandemic-forced downtime—“coming back stronger” also means a broader, more meaningful embrace of the work of diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

Growing up listening to artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, who figured prominently in the civil rights movement, Harrington has always appreciated the powerful connection between music and activism. However, it wasn’t until recently that he felt called to join their ranks and use his craft in the service of anti-racism.

“I’ve always thought my existence in this country, by itself, is activism,” reflects Harrington. “But the deaths of Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others—the repeated injustices and the lack of support and accountability from those who are held so highly, those that have so much influence and power—it broke me. It really got me going, pushed me forward. I felt called to speak up and speak my mind and to match that with action.”

Harrington’s call to action coincides with a larger, welcome awakening across the entertainment industry. “It’s been great to watch as talent agencies, directors, and production companies begin to ask the right questions—to ask what we need to do to make our industry more inclusive, more anti-racist, more open to diverse voices and experiences.”

For his part, Harrington is committed to partnering with other artists to use his platform and visibility as an influencer to identify issues and potential solutions and to holding the industry, and himself, accountable to promises of positive change.

“When Broadway comes back, things still won’t be where they need to be. I want to be one of the voices that say, ‘this is what needs to be fixed, and you don’t know that it needs to be fixed because you’ve never acknowledged that it was broken.’ It is going to be a long process, but it has to start somewhere, and I’m ready to fight tooth and nail for it.”

For Harrington, much of that work turns on representation, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity not only to share the stage but see themselves and their experiences in the work.

“Representation matters,” offers Harrington. “Lots of shows have been on the right track in terms of casting actors of color, but there is a really big difference between casting from the BIPOC community for a BIPOC show versus casting BIPOC actors for a predominantly white show. And it isn’t just about race; as an advocate and ally for the LGBTQIA+ community, I want to see better representation for the trans community, for the gay community—they also need to be properly represented.”

As for what comes next for Harrington, the future is uncertain but bright. With signs that the pandemic might be waning, he’s looking forward to reuniting with his castmates—recently nominated for a 2021 Grammy award for best cast album (Harrington sadly joined the production too late to lend his voice to the album)—and to bringing Audrey II to life on the Little Shop of Horrors stage.

Beyond that, he’s energized by the prospect of bringing new, transformative productions to the stage and by opportunities to leave his mark on the roles ahead. He’s particularly keen to originate characters that embody authentic, diverse experiences and whose stories are groundbreaking and help to broaden perspectives and spark positive change—just as RENT did when it first premiered over 25 years ago.

“There’s nothing like originating a role, to being the first person to take it to the stage,” reflects Harrington. “The actors that come after you, you know, they give their input, but they will always know that Aaron Harrington did this role first, this is how he did it, these were the choices he made, this was his vision. And that’s pretty cool.”

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Coming Home

Glen Matthews

Faculty Reflections

All Together Now

February 10, 2021

Theater teacher Glen Matthews vividly remembers standing transfixed in the quiet dark of backstage Berger Hall. Before him, Evan Zhu ‘23, playing Simba in the 2017 production of The Lion King Junior, was grieving his father Mufasa, newly killed in a wildebeest stampede.

“He was kneeling over his father’s body and saying ‘Dad! Dad! Wake up, wake up!’” recalls Matthews, his voice breaking with emotion at the memory. “We hadn’t seen anything like it in rehearsals—he was truly living that moment, living that grief; he was weeping, fully transformed.”

“To be able to do that as an actor in front of 500 people, regardless of your age—to be that authentic in a moment—that’s difficult stuff. Actors work their whole life to find that, and here was this young person who allowed themself to just shed their skin—it was beautiful and powerful, a privilege to witness.”

For Matthews, such moments are a triumph, not only as testaments to the artistic growth of his student actors, but as a reflection of the success of the entire ensemble that helps usher them to life on the stage, and for the powerful connection that they forge with the audience.

Ensemble ethic

Helping his students bring such visceral experiences to life—and he’s quick to point out that there have been many during his 23-year tenure at CA—is one of the things Matthews loves most about his role.

Matthews joined CA in 1998—before the campus even had a theater space—arriving after a brief detour as a theater teacher with Neal Middle School in Durham, from acting with The Burning Coal Theater company, which had recently located from Manhattan to North Carolina.

He remembers those early days fondly, meeting with Performing Arts Director Michael Hayes on the second floor of the Admin Building as they began to collaboratively explore what a theater program at CA might look like. What would it emphasize and value? What would it ultimately seek to instill in its students?

“A lot of people, when they hear theater, they’re thinking, ‘oh, well, that class is just going to be about acting,’” offers Matthews. “And, yes, actors are important and, yes, you have to have someone to tell the story. Before you can even get to that part, though, you must have a story to tell.”

And Matthews will tell you that the magic of discovering and telling that story is found in the collaboration of the entire group that supports its production—in the cultivation of the ensemble.

“I knew that I wanted the CA theater experience to be broader than just a focus on what it means to be an actor. Early on, we grounded the work in the ensemble ethic—the idea that we are a diverse group of people working together towards a common goal.

“We spend a lot of time at the beginning of any class exploring what that means. What does it mean to be a part of a group that has invested their resources, their time, and their talents into accomplishing a goal? What are my responsibilities to you? What are your responsibilities to me? To each other? And how are we all contributing to the growth and the maintenance of this wonderful, beautiful thing?” explains Matthews.

Once those relationships and boundaries are established—trust earned and developed—the ensemble becomes the foundation upon which everything is scaffolded, from stage makeup application to combat choreograph, scenery design to, of course, acting exercises. In everything, the ensemble, collaboration, and the collective journey are paramount—at times leading to unexpected learning opportunities.

“I have a sense of what’s going to happen each day, but what’s exciting is that even though there’s a plan, it really depends on the energy of the room—what the students bring into the space, where they are at that moment,” explains Matthews. “Meeting them where they are, saying ‘okay, wherever we end up today is where we are supposed to be,’ is important. And determining what we can learn from that together—that’s exciting; it’s powerful.”

Matthews’s students will tell you that it is an empowering approach.

“Mr. Matthews’s ensemble approach helps everyone grow together and feel like they can experiment with different things,” offers alum Evan Snively ’20. “It really frees you to make your own artistic choices.”

Chioma Modilim ’22 agrees. “Mr. Matthews is always encouraging us as students and actors to step outside our comfort zones and to explore our creativity. Whenever I ask him what I should do as the character in a particular moment or scene, he always responds with, ‘just play with it.’ He is great at balancing guiding us with letting us make our own decisions, and that freedom is something that I’ve really come to appreciate.”

Failing boldly

At its heart, the ensemble ethic is about creating a safe space, one in which everyone is valued and empowered to tap into their most imaginative and creative selves, emboldened to take creative risks—the kind that lead to significant growth and learning.

“I spend a lot of time trying to create that safe space for my students. I want them to know that, when they are here, they can shed their skin, they can be vulnerable,” explains Matthews. “I have a sign in my classroom in the Black Box; I put it there for myself, but I share it with my students. It says, ‘risk all, fail boldly.’

“That concept is something that I stumbled upon years ago while working with adult performers. We all need to be reminded that it is okay to fail boldly. That’s when we learn. That’s when we grow as artists, certainly—but even more importantly—that is when we grow as human beings.”

Matthews, whose roots in performing arts run deep, has been taking creative risks his whole life. From an early age, music and performance were important in his life, whether singing solos in his southern Mississippi church choir as a young child or playing piano in elementary school or the trombone in his high school marching band.

He credits his sixth-grade music teacher for helping him discover a passion and talent for theater. “Mrs. Pugh recognized something in me,” he reflects. She began to take him to see musicals produced in the broader area, ultimately escorting him to his first audition—a civic production of The Wizard of Oz. He would land the part of a munchkin—a small role that would have a big life-long impact, setting a creative trajectory towards a career in theater.

A creative coincidence, his early start got a little boost from contemporary pop culture—thanks to the meteoric rise of the wildly popular musical Annie. “Everything was about Annie, and the sun will come out tomorrow! I had the album, and I was, you know, I was convinced that I was going to be the next Annie,” he laughs. “Obviously, I wasn’t, but it was certainly a driving force.”

His newly discovered love of musical theater would carry him through numerous workshops and community performances before finally leading to the pursuit, first, of a BFA in musical theater from William Carey College and, later, an MFA in directing from the University of Southern Mississippi. It even led him to his partner of 24 years, Gary Williams, a fellow thespian and theatrical collaborator who has been hugely important in his creative journey.

A creative calling

While Matthews is himself no stranger to the spotlight of center stage, having taken many turns acting with various professional troops, directing and teaching has proven his true calling. He credits the pivotal role his own teachers played in sparked his passions, as well as his mother—a kindergarten and daycare provider—as inspiring his love and reverence for the classroom.

“After undergraduate and graduate school, I had a lot of friends who asked, ‘why aren’t you going to New York? Why aren’t you going to LA?” explains Matthews. “Truthfully, I just never felt like that was my calling.

“Teachers had always guided my path; my mom was involved in education, so teaching always resonated with me. And I think directing, which has always been a passion and what I pursued in my own education, has a lot of overlap with teaching. It requires a lot of guiding and supporting—so teaching was a very natural choice, a natural transition.”
At CA, it has proven an incredibly gratifying one, in large part because of the connections he has forged with students and colleagues alike, whether in the classroom, as a student advisor, during an extracurricular production, or leading the Middle School Rollercoaster Madness and Stage Combat Clubs.

Gratifying impact

“One of the wonderful things about teaching in the arts department is that we get introduced to the students in Middle School. We have opportunities to continue to impact their lives and watch them grow and learn from them as they move all the way through 12th grade. That’s something that I don’t think I would have the opportunity to do anywhere else. To be able to be a part of a student’s growth and journey over seven years—it is amazing.”

That appreciation runs both ways.

When Suddenly company closing night

“It’s difficult to put into words the impact that Mr. Matthews has had on both my time at CA and my life,” reflects alum Kevin Pendergast ’14. “He has been a driving force in shaping my approach to theater, my views of the world, and largely the person I am today.

“Mr. Matthews taught me that theater forces us to embark on work that is often emotionally and mentally taxing. He taught me that to give justice to this work we must ‘spit’ away the baggage of the outside world before we even enter the room. He teaches us to dig within ourselves for answers and work together in the trusting environment he provides to share our findings with an audience. By gathering together and taking a collective breath, Mr. Matthews facilitates insurmountable levels of individual and community growth. He is a driving force in the ensemble of our world.”

Communal catharsis

In April, Matthews and a group of Upper School students, many of whom he has been working with for years, will bring a new production, The Theory of Relativity, to the CA stage. It will mark Matthews’s 28th performance at CA.

Mounting such a production amid a pandemic has not been without challenge, but it is an undertaking that Matthews and his students feel is more important than ever.
“Theater is important. We all have stories to tell, and we all appreciate hearing each other’s stories. I think now, in particular, we need communal experiences—opportunities to celebrate, to mourn, to give honor, to connect and build empathy, to heal.”

Ever the teacher, Matthews offers a history lesson to make his point, sharing how the ancient Greeks were early proponents of the cathartic power of theater.
“The Greeks believed, in coming together to experience the plight of mythic characters suffering through significant tragedy, that they themselves would feel and be purged,” explains Matthews.“I believe that is why theater still exists today. In coming together to live a story all at the same time­—we feel, we purge. Hopefully, we walk out those doors better people as a result.”

It is a lofty goal, to be sure, and one that he teaches his students carries significant responsibility rooted in our connection to each other.

“As theater artists, not only do we have the opportunity to help people feel, but in doing so, we can inspire change,” offers Matthews. “I have the privilege of seeing our students do this all the time, through the stories that they tell and how they choose to tell them, together, in the ensemble.”

He pauses, “If a student only remembers one thing from their time with me, I hope it is the importance of the ensemble—that we are stronger and more powerful when we choose to combine our abilities with those of others, to learn from the people around us. Working together as artists, our impact—their impact—is significant. It matters.”

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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CA Bands finish out the year on a high note

June 12, 2020

Three CA students not only made the 2020 NC Music Educators Association All State Band and All State Jazz ensembles but earned the top chairs for their instrument in each of the bands.

The outstanding musicians receiving these honors: Marvin Koonce ’21 – Piano for All-State High School Jazz, Abby Li ’22 – 1st Chair Flute for All-State Honors Band, and Luke Ramee ’24 – 1st Chair Trombone for All-State Middle School Jazz. Koonce and Li have applied for the 2020 All-National Ensemble which will happen in Florida during the fall. Li was also awarded a chair placement in the All-State Orchestra ensemble, also set to happen in the fall.

To celebrate their achievements, Director of Bands Lester Turner delivered yard signs to CA’s All State Band members.

In addition, Mr. Turner has shared two tunes the students worked up over final trimester of 2019-20, to brighten our week and hold us over, while we wait for their next concert.  As Mr. Turner explains, “performing for friends and family is a big part of the Band experience and we will have to hold off on that for some time yet.  These videos though will be able to be sent out to the students’ contacts virtually and share a little of what they have been doing.”

Midle School 7th and 8th grade band performing Skygazer by Randall Standridge:

Upper School Wind Ensemble performing Brave Spirit by Randall Standridge:

Both are by Randall Standridge, who has been kind enough to allow his works to be performed freely virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Raising a community

February 27, 2020

Tuesday was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and it has been on my mind. Fat Tuesday marks the culmination of weeks of parades featuring festive krewes, flambeau carriers, toe-tapping drum and brass bands, parties and balls, and generally lots of revelry for the city and its visitors. For seven years, I lived, studied, and taught in New Orleans, an experience I cherish. I loved learning about the city’s unique and tumultuous history and the French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences that shape the culture, food, music, architecture, and traditions that we see today.  

As Mardi Gras coincides closely with the wrap of our second trimester, I have been making connections. Mardi Gras builds community and contributes to the identity of New Orleans (and it’s a fun time for participants and observers). Similarly, in our Middle School classrooms, on the fields, and on the stage, students participate in and enjoy experiences that bring them together and build team, club, grade -level, Middle School, and CA identities.   

As evident in the creative production of unforgetting, our student performers and tech crew delivered poignant and uplifting stories of life’s moments. They worked together for weeks and developed closely as an ensemble – an experience and connection that will stay with them for years. 

Another example is the unique cross-grade level language arts project that developed from work with longtime CA partner, Burning Coal Theater Company. Sixth graders wrote poems expressing their ideas about the theme of Ubuntu. Seventh graders worked together in small groups and combined the 6th-grade poems with movement, shadow work, and props to create a new work of art. Eighth graders then took these poetic vignettes and added a layer of digital projection. Integral to the process was the thoughtful and constructive student feedback given to peers and teachers who worked alongside in the design of the project. Final pieces of this comprehensive and connected student-inspired project will be performed for the entire middle school as a part of the larger Ubuntu Celebration on Friday. 

These two curricular and co-curricular collaborative projects are illustrative of many amazing community-building activities our middle schoolers experienced over the past twelve weeks and will continue to enjoy during their time at Cary Academy. Facilitated and inspired by creative and supportive faculty in an environment that cultivates collaboration, out-of-the-box thinking, and relevant real-life connections, our students are challenged to think, work, and play hard all trimester. Our students and faculty are ready for a break. 

Now that Mardi Gras has passed, the city is noticeably quiet in contrast to the busy, activity-filled weeks leading up it. I am hopeful that our trimester break provides students and faculty a change in pace and time to relax, reflect, and refresh!

Written by Marti Jenkins, Head of Middle School


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Latest News

Middle School band awarded top honors

March 20, 2019

The Middle School Band was Awarded the top honor of Superior from the judges, yesterday, at the NC Central District Bandmasters Association Music Performance Adjudication (MPA).  An MPA is a music performance festival and competition in which dozens of schools from across the state compete.

The group did a wonderful job and Band Director Lester Turner is excited to report that all of their energy and efforts paid off in the best way possible.  The last time Cary Academy’s Band received a Superior at MPA was back in 2007. Turner explains, “this is a fantastic success for the group and will help drive us forward…  I hope all the students enjoyed the experience and I know for me, it was awesome to make music with them.”

Please take a moment to congratulate them as you see them around campus.

We hope you will join the CA Middle School band for their spring concert at CA on Thursday, April 4th at 7pm.

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