The Right Touch

Madison, Ind., drama teacher Kelsey uses Disney experience in classroom

He has worked backstage at Florida’s Walt Disney World

(March 2017) – What do you do when you have created a successful fine arts program at Madison Consolidated High School, received the “Five Under 40 Award” from the Madison Future Young Professionals, and saved a beloved community event from extinction all by the age of 37? If you are P. Aaron Kelsey, you go to Disney World.
With a newly minted diploma in hand, Kelsey landed in Madison, Ind., 15 years ago to teach art. He brought with him a desire to promote the arts in rural areas, believing that students’ participation in the arts should be encouraged as much as participation in sports.

Photo provided

Madison Consolidated High School drama teacher Aaron Kelsey (far left) poses with a group of his theater students at the 2016 Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art.

“I have always been interested in the arts, however, in my hometown of Mitchell, Ind., there were not a lot of opportunities for kids to be involved in music, plays, etc.”
As his duties at the high school expanded, he began to develop more opportunities for his students. In 2013, Kelsey founded the Madison Fine Arts Academy and became the Academy Director and Theatre Advisor. The program allows students to graduate with a special distinction in fine arts.
In 2011, Kelsey applied for and received the Lilly Foundation Creative Grant. The grants recognize Indiana teachers and supports their continued learning so they can bring their experiences into the classroom.
Directed by the theme of his proposal to study the life lessons learned from Walt Disney, Kelsey traveled in Disney’s footsteps, from his childhood in Missouri, where Disney began his artistic career, to California, the home of Walt Disney Studios.
Kelsey even traveled by train to Los Angeles, just as Disney did in the 1920s. Along the way, he visited Disney’s apartment, located on the second floor of one of the stores on Main Street USA in the theme park, toured the Imaginarium Studios and the Disney family museum in San Francisco.
His experiences with the Disney story was not yet complete, which was unknown to Kelsey at the time.
A chance viewing of a documentary on Disney Holiday Services sparked an idea of actually working at the Orlando theme park, Walt Disney World. He picked up the phone, introduced himself and asked to work in Holiday Services. 

Photo provided

Aaron Kelsey poses with “Mrs. Claus” (Cheryl Torline of Madison) prior to last year’s Madison Christmas Parade.

“It is very unusual for this to happen, but they hired me,” Kelsey said. “I worked there last June and July, Monday through Friday, while my wife (Jamie) and six children stayed in a hotel and enjoyed their summer vacation. I had access to backstage areas and the network of underground tunnels,” he added.
Holiday Services is a large warehouse where all the holiday related decorations are stored and maintained, including Halloween, Easter and especially Christmas. All the decorations for Walt Disney World theme parks, resorts, shops and the cruise line are installed at night by a team of 28 full-time cast members who begin decorating for Christmas as early as October. An entire hotel is decorated all at once in a single night.
Everything is pre-assembled and labeled and stored in this 70,000-square-foot warehouse and is expected to last no more than five seasons. The team is kept busy all year cleaning, refurbishing and redesigning holiday decorations.
Revitalized by the experience, Kelsey tries to incorporate the culture of excellence found at Disney in to his classroom. Other lessons learned from his two Disney experiences: it does take a village; competition is good; creativity leads to innovation, and we need to continue to look back to history and forward to technology.
Under the lesson of “It Takes A Village,” Kelsey a few years ago called the office of the newly elected Madison Mayor Damon Welch, reaching Andrew Forrester, the city’s Community Relations Manager.
“I answered the call, and it was Aaron,” Forrester recalled. “He told me that if he was put in charge, we would not cancel another Christmas Parade.” The 2011 event had been cancelled due to lack of entries.
He has kept his word. The parade has continued to grow, and in 2016 it included the giant balloons made famous by the Macy’s Day Parade. “It is great to work with Aaron. He is constantly improving, making things better, attracting locals and visitors alike to our town,” Forrester said.
Back at Madison Consolidated High School, Kelsey continues to take on more projects aimed at helping students express their artistic talents. Under his direction, the 2016 Veterans’ Day celebration incorporated the choir and the band, together for the first time. As the sponsor of this year’s high school prom, he is encouraged the committee to expand beyond the same old themes, resulting in an elegant, French Garden theme fashioned after a painting “Le jardin de l’amour” by French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard in the Rococo style like Versailles.
On March 15, the Madison Fine Arts Academy will present “The Music Man in Concert.” A benefit to raise money to support a scholarship. the evening will include the band, choir, theatre and visual arts students. Other productions planned for the spring include the play “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and special performances of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” for area elementary schools.

A fan of Walt Disney since his childhood, Kelsey could be seen as the living example of a quote from Disney himself: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

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