For Orchard School Graduates, Commencement Goes Hollywood

An eighth grader from Orchard School poses for a graduation portrait

Image courtesy James Layne

When parents switch on their cars’ FM radios at 9 p.m. Thursday night at the Tibbs Drive-In Theatre on Indy’s southwest side, they’ll hear the voices of their sons and daughters—and see their smiling faces on the same screen that, the following night, Harrison Ford and Beyoncé will rock in Call of the Wild and Dreamgirls.

While past eighth-grade Orchard School graduates have thanked grandmothers, coaches, and lunchroom staff in one- to three-minute speeches delivered in front of approximately 200 parents, teachers, and friends, the class of 2020 will get the chance to say thank you in a much bigger way. Orchard School marketing coordinator James Layne says he believes they’ll be the city’s first class to have their graduation ceremony conducted entirely on the big screen.

“We rented the entire theater,” he says. “We made the privacy call that we didn’t want someone watching Dirty Dancing to look over and see a graduate’s photo and first and last name on the next screen.”

Graduation speeches are a tradition for Orchard School eighth-graders, but as the coronavirus crisis claimed commencement ceremonies across the state in March, Layne says it became clear an in-person ceremony wouldn’t be possible. He and middle-school director Angela Brothers decided they needed to find some other way to honor their graduates’ hard work.

Eight graders from Orchard School prepping for their formal graduation photos

“She asked, ‘What if we did a drive-in graduation?’” he says.

Layne liked the idea, but wanted to do more to honor the 57 students he’s known since they were 3 or 4 years old. “We watched these kids grow up, and now for them not to be able to go out in style?” he says. “We weren’t going to have it.”

He and Brothers embarked on a weeklong tour in a white Orchard School minibus to compile footage for speeches by all 57 graduates, an odyssey that spanned 25 hours and roughly 200 miles. In addition to gifting every graduate a pizza and a custom celebratory yard sign, Layne, who’s also a professional photographer, took a formal photo of each student, their suits and dresses set against backdrops of budding gardens and blooming flowers.

And though the final hour-and-45-minute film makes it look like Layne was mere feet from the students’ faces, he followed social-distancing guidelines and left at least six feet between himself and each student (he used a zoom lens to ensure they’d be up close and personal in their big-screen debuts). Then it was time to crank out the editing.

“There were lots of 2 a.m. nights,” he says. “I spent more than 40 hours editing the video. But it was important for me that they could leave and feel special.”

There were, of course, a few mishaps. In one blooper featured in the Orchard School’s teaser video for the celebration, Brothers and Layne show up at the wrong house.

“What’d you say the address was?” Layne asks as Brothers strolls across a lawn toward a house.

“6534,” she says.

“Uh, this is 6554,” Layne replies.

Brothers sprints back to the bus, celebratory yard sign in tow, hops into the driver’s seat, and slams the door. “Goodness, that’s embarrassing,” she says.

All in a day’s work to make this year’s Orchard School graduates a ceremony to remember.

The Orchard School’s 2020 eighth-grade graduation will take place Thursday, May 21, at 9 p.m. at the Tibbs Drive-In Theatre.