A blogger I follow wrote a post recently about the importance of trying new things. The past five years in my little alternative school have been a perpetual exercise in doing just that. From the start I have just thrown myself into things without much forethought, thinking “Sure! Why not? I’ll give it a whirl.” That’s how I ended up singing in front of an audience as part of our little teachers’ choir. And how I ended up in London for five days with eight 13 year-olds. And how I became a History/Geography/Biology/Chemistry and Physics teacher along with English. In fact that was the attitude that got me to accept the job in the first place. I’d had very little experience teaching young kids at that time and . . . Montessori Who?? What’s that? But the Board seemed to want me (actually they wanted a native speaker, ANY native speaker) so I said yes. From that moment on it has just been one new thing after another. One jump into the deep end after another. My latest adventure has been in stage play writing and theater direction.
It started when three of my P2 kids badgered me into bringing English sketches for them to act out. I found a few in the internet and they eventually picked one based on the children’s book “Click Clack Moo – Cows that Type”. We started reading and then performing together and within minutes, other kids from the class started gravitating toward us. “What are you doing? Can I join?” Pretty soon I had ten kids participating and then one interrupted the fun to say “We should perform this in the Christmas show!” The others chimed in “Yeah!” and “Let’s do it!” and “Cool!” and then they all immediately started arguing over the parts. All of them wanted to have the starring roles. Unfortunately, the script was written in a way that the two narrators had 90% of the lines between them.
It occurred to me that most of the narrator stuff could be changed into lines spoken by the characters and offered to rewrite the script. That made everyone happy and we managed to decide who would be cows, hens, ducks, and the farmer. We arranged to start rehearsals two days later. That would give us plenty of time, I thought – almost a whole month. (heh heh, right.)
It turned out that writing a play was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I spent hours and hours on the rewrite, finally coming up with something that I thought would work on a stage and satisfy the kids (and their sense of fairness). I proudly presented the new script to them and, suddenly, seven of them became shy and started asking for less to say. Horse-trading in lines started as they informed me of their many ideas and changes (not all of them workable.) A half hour later, my copy of the script was full of scribbles and cross-outs and arrows and add-ins . . . I took it home and tried to decipher my notes as I did Rewrite #2.
I presented the new play in the next lesson with the information that this was the final version. Take it or leave it. And while I was at it, they had to say now if they were taking part – no backing out! All ten were still on board and we started our first real rehearsal. After two minutes, I started wondering what was wrong with them all. When we were just playing around a week earlier, they were all acting and improvising the movements of the animals and speaking the lines with ease. Now, all of the sudden, they were standing awkwardly with the papers in front of their faces, stuttering and tripping over the words, reading them badly in monotone voices and mispronouncing every third word. It seemed to me they didn’t even understand what they were saying. We only had three weeks left and there was a lot of work to do. The reading went painfully slowly as many of them got more and more fidgety, distracted and distracting. A few spats broke out. We weren’t even halfway through when little Emma interrupted me with a question.
“What’s my costume going to look like?”
They were suddenly all reanimated and flurry of discussions took off with ideas about what they could make and wear on stage. I realized I would need to call in some assistance. Dani, the Art teacher, to the rescue!
For most of the next two weeks, all of our rehearsal time was used for fashioning ears, painting cow blotches onto tunics, crafting tails and foam beaks, attaching eyes and bills to baseball caps, painting a big barn door and preparing the signs that would hang there. I managed to chase each player down separately to go over their lines with them, and each time I heard the same lifeless, monotone, unintelligible strings of mispronounced words. The more elaborate the costumes and staging got, the more nervous I became. I insisted on a pre-dress rehearsal – set for today – in advance of the final one next Monday. The first thing I heard when I got to school this morning was that four of the six kids with major speaking parts were absent. Another four had lost their scripts.
The curtain was going up in five days and this was going to be a total train wreck.
We decided to do a rehearsal anyway with me reading out the lines of our missing actresses. The kids put on their (fabulous!) costumes and we went to big room that serves as our auditorium. I gave them a minimum of stage directions (“Cows enter first, then hens, then ducks.”) And I added one more thing:
“Remember that a lot of your parents don’t speak English very well, so speak extra loudly, slowly and clearly, so that they can follow you.” Then I let them go.
It was like a little Christmas miracle.
They came out on stage with all their natural acting abilities in full force. They moved like the animals they were. Their moos and squawks and clucks sounded real. They improvised and gestured perfectly. They knew instinctively when and how to call attention to themselves and when to hang back so as not to be distracting. They knew their lines and said them clearly. They even caught me when I accidentally skipped a line. They were having fun and it showed.
Kids are so cool. They don’t worry about making everything perfect. They just give things a go and figure it will all work out somehow. I started the school day as a nervous wreck and ended it inspired.