French teacher reviving theatrical arts at A. K. Wigg

French teacher and Willy Wonka Junior director Michael Arseneau. JENNIFER CHORNLEY PHOTO

Spring production to involve 130 students


This year Michel Arseneau entered his 21st year of teaching, now as A. K. Wigg Public School’s newest staff member. The Welland-born educator brings a francophone background and experience in theatrical productions to the elementary school.

As Arseneau is descended from a francophone background, he says teaching French to students at the elementary level helps “convey that importance to the kids, especially living here in Canada and that we are part of the more than 200 million francophones in the world.”

“I think it’s an appreciation for another language is also for other cultures, not only here in Canada but around the world.”

Looking towards the future and as the students continue to grow and learn, Arseneau hopes that “they see it as something that’s useful for them, especially in their future careers.”

Being able to speak a second language opens up new doors, he says.

While Arseneau’s focus is teaching French, his second love is “anything to do with the arts.”

In the past, when Arseneau was able to have his own homeroom, he was able teach his own art, drama and music.

“I don’t have any music skills to share with the kids as I have been described by a friend as being tone-deaf, however I do have the drama skills.”

“I absolutely love creating and giving the kids the tools to create,” Arseneau said.

“The expressive arts are my favorite thing to do at school. I teach French, of course, because it’s what I have to do, but the arts are something I really love.”

For the past 15 years, Arseneau has has orchestrated numerous theatrical productions including musicals and Shakespeare. Productions have included Beauty and the Beast, Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka Junior, and The Sound of Music.

The inspiration to continue producing shows such as these began when he was teaching at a school in the Durham Board, where he taught for eight years. He assisted a fellow teacher, who also got him into doing community theatre productions. After the teacher moved, Arseneau took over the responsibilities of doing a yearly performance. After a few years, Arseneau returned to Niagara, bringing his love for the arts to Orchard Park Public School in Niagara Falls, where he taught from 2006 to June of this year.

This year, Arseneau is coordinating the production of Willy Wonka Junior, which will be his second time doing so.

Arseneau explained this is a junior version of the Broadway play, which has been condensed to about an hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.

“The songs’ vocal ranges have been brought down to the average level of an elementary school kid’s voice,” he said. “The songs and scenes have been shortened, but otherwise, it’s essentially the same.”

This year’s performance will involve 130 students ranging from Grades 4 to 8, which is the “biggest cast and crew I’ve ever had. My next largest was 97 at my school last year, and I thought 97 kids was a big group.”

With the amount of interest expressed by the students, Arseneau said, “I have just been amazed by the kids here and their willingness to join in [especially since] I’m brand new.”

Wanting to bring the performing arts scene back to A. K. Wigg, he “started poking around” and I was able to find support from the staff, school council, administration, and the students.

Fellow teachers Elizabeth Abraham (music director), Lisa Fuccili (costumes), Bronwen Cunningham, Sarah Breadner (choreography), Jaime Young (back stage manager) and Marci Tennier (lights and sound) are assisting with the production.

Choosing a production to do this year was “crazy. We were going to do a few others but they didn’t work out for different reasons,” Arseneau said. “I love Willy Wonka. I think it’s good fun.”

When choosing the production he was also working to find ways to bring in male students for a variety of fun roles.

Producing a show such as Willy Wonka Junior “is a great community builder. It’s a collaborative process where it’s coming together kids with all sorts of different skills and interests, kids can join in by singing, helping with lights and sound, acting and set design,” he said.

Arseneau said that the arts allow students to build on existing collaboration, co-operation, confidence and leadership skills.

“With so many extracurricular activities already, this is a wonderful school to be a student.”

“I am just ecstatic that I can do it this year, because when I moved schools, you don’t know what you’re exactly what you’re coming to. I’m thrilled to be able to continue directing. It’s one of my favorite things to do and if I couldn’t do that here at school something big would be missing for myself.”

As Arseneau also enjoys performing in community theatre he had wondered if he would find it equally as fulfilling to direct, “and yes, it is.”

“I get to see how these kids rise to being the star of the show, confident and becoming leaders and just to develop as a person. It’s really great. I love it,” he said.

Reflecting upon his career so far and what he enjoys about teaching, Arseneau said, “I love working with the kids. You could be coming to school in the morning and have a bad morning, but you show up and you meet the kids and your mood improves immediately. I really enjoy working with them.”

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