Every other week, 5th Graders at Ethical Culture have the option to spend their Monday recess in Phillip Bettencourt’s classroom, an expansive space on the 5th Floor. The room is festooned with props from past performances — painted vases and festively wrapped presents from last year’s production of Annie immediately catch the eye.
Music recess is unstructured time for students to experience performance on their own terms, guiding the 30-minute session with support from Bettencourt. A typical day might include a lip sync battle (“a serious musical pedagogical activity,” Bettencourt deadpans); explorations of the metallophone, the piano, or any number of percussion elements; a musical theater sing-along; or improv games.
Letting students self-direct their musical exploration is part of Bettencourt’s teaching style: he aims to give students the tools to feel ownership of and confidence around performing arts. As Ethical Culture’s Music Teacher and Theater Director, he teaches over 130 4th and 5th Graders the fundamentals of performance, letting them find their place in the spotlight.
Bettencourt also directs the 4th Grade musical, a significant milestone for Ethical Culture students. The question of which production is a closely guarded secret, and Bettencourt says the rumor mill starts churning with vigor as the students try to suss out the production choice before it’s revealed each December. “I just have no clue where these rumors come from,” he laughs.
The play is an event students look forward to from the start of their time at Ethical Culture. Every 4th Grader gets a role, and with Bettencourt’s help, even the shy children find their voice. Whether or not a student performs a line or a gesture to the letter of the script, the audience responds and the “kids realize they’ve [elicited that reaction] and they’ve put themselves out there so vulnerably,” Bettencourt says. It “does a lot to support the children’s development of their self-esteem.”
Bettencourt — who is ineffably charming — comes from a rich background in theater. His first performance was nerve-wracking: “The first time I looked out at an audience, I quickly covered my face with my hands” — which wasn’t in the script. “Unexpectedly, I got a laugh,” he says. “I was hooked.”
Bettencourt was talented, and word spread. When he was in 5th Grade, the local high school in his Southern Massachusetts town invited him to play the role of Patrick Dennis in its production of Mame. “Stars lit up in my eyes. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is better than Broadway!’ It was terribly wonderful,” he laughs.
He continued starring in theater productions throughout high school, nabbing lead roles in The Human Comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, and Anything Goes, to name a few. Outside of school, he participated in community theater and regional theater shows and — remarkably — started a summer arts festival for children in elementary and middle school, inviting theater, dance, and art organizations to participate. After attending Boston Conservatory where he majored in musical theater, he headed to New York City, where he appeared in a variety of off-Broadway and regional theater productions.
In 2006, Bettencourt started work at a theater’s afterschool program on Roosevelt Island. He spent seven years directing the children’s theater division, as well as music-directing the division for teens. During that time, he started working at Metropolitan Montessori School as the Theater Arts Director. He spent 10 years there, including a period where he worked at both MMS and Ethical Culture, filling in for a teacher on sabbatical. When that teacher announced his retirement three years ago, Bettencourt assumed the role, and this is his fourth year at Ethical Culture.
Theater instruction doesn’t stop with summer break. When school ends in June, Bettencourt heads to Connecticut, where he leads another 100 students for nine weeks at Broadway Bootcamp, a performing arts camp he co-owns that’s in its 17th year. Between his work at camp and at school, Bettencourt has produced around 80 productions starring children.
Bettencourt says his students arrive in September with a wide range of abilities, personalities, and fears. “Whether a child is introspective or an extrovert, my job is to set them up [to succeed], to feel confident they can do things, and later reflect on their time in this class — that they created and performed something impressive that they enjoyed sharing publicly.”
Bettencourt works with his students to help them make their mark on a musical. He teaches them to respect the instructions of a script, but notes that scripts leave room for personal expression. “The fluidity comes in interpretation and learning how to bring scripts to life,” Bettencourt says. “There’s always room for discovery.”
And that work goes beyond the stage. Really, the students are learning to communicate, Bettencourt says.
Bettencourt’s students have gone on to work on Broadway, off Broadway, in television, in major motion pictures, in the New York City Ballet, and in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus; many of them attend top college theater programs across the country.
The fluidity comes in interpretation and learning how to bring scripts to life.
But the sense of accomplishment Bettencourt takes from his work comes less from accolades and more from quiet moments in the classroom. “I like the joy [students] find in what we do — and how much fun it can be for them,” he says. It’s those “moments of discovery,” he says, that add a sense of wonder to the work.
“I love what I do. Kids can feel it when I walk through the door. It’s truly a privilege to teach them, and I’m grateful. They create something that’s meaningful for them, that they always remember” — a love and appreciation for theater that lasts beyond curtain call.