Fourth Grade Theater Project goes dark

— File photo by Sally Cohn

After 17 years, the Fourth Grade Theater Project, a hands-on full immersion educational theater program run by The Vineyard Playhouse, will go dark.

With the exception of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, the other Island elementary schools that participated have opted out of the program for this year. The Oak Bluffs School is in talks with The Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo about scheduling some sort of less extensive program with The Playhouse in the spring. The issue apparently is time.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss comments on the scheduling difficulties that led to the decision. “In general terms we do a million different things with our kids and sometimes it gets very difficult to schedule them all,” he said “I think it’s an excellent program that many of our kids participated in and we may do it again next year.”

The six-week program has required that kids travel to The Playhouse twice a week for a month. Some of the schools participated in the fall and others in the spring. Oak Bluffs school principal Richard Smith comments on the time spent traveling to and from The Playhouse. “It’s no so much the distance. It’s the turnaround — loading the buses, waiting for the buses. If you add the front-end and the back-end trip it’s up to an hour of what we call windshield time.”

Mr. Smith says, “It [the time] does have a large impact. But just the same, the program does have a positive impact as well.” He adds, “I spoke to my teachers and we decided this could be a situation where if the other schools are not participating maybe we can make a change in how this is formatted.” He is in discussions with Ms. Munafo to try to work out a solution possibly involving classroom instruction only without the hands-on element.

Mr. Weiss insists that the schools’ decision was not based on a shift in focus from the arts to academics. “It’s not about MCAS or something else,” he said. “There are just a lot of things that kids are involved in.” He points to the number of existing programs including environmental studies at Felix Neck, a program with The Yard, a Suzuki-style strings program, trips to The FARM Institute, and work with the Island Grown Schools project. “If you look at the number of things that we’re involved in we need to make choices,” he said.

Dr. Weiss notes that the schools also sponsor a number of off-Island activities. “We’re focused on keeping their world large rather than small. There’s just a plethora of things to do. This [the Fourth Grade Theater Project] is one that demands a lot of time.”

The Fourth Grade Theater Project was founded by Ms. Munafo and Georgia Morris in 1997 in response to a temporary overcrowding situation in the Tisbury School. Eventually all six Island grade schools signed on. The Chilmark School only participated during the 2005/2006 school year. The Edgartown School dropped out of the program last year. The Charter School participates in the program every other year and this is their off-year.

The project involved kids in every aspect of the production of an original play. Kids helped write the plays and then split up into teams to handle the acting, tech duties, and business end of the production. Former fourth grade teacher Kate Hancock joined the project team in 2005

Said Ms. Munafo, “One of the reasons that Kate came on was to tie the program in more with the Mass curriculum framework. We created a teacher’s guide and a whole curriculum. We’ve made changes as per teachers every year. We’ve always been evolving. It’s never been a stagnant program.”

Ms. Hancock, who previously ran a theater program for fourth and fifth graders for 15 years, notes that she will look for ways to work with kids again. “I want to stay involved with theater for kids. I think it was the best teaching I ever did,” she said. “You see kids who are complete scrubs in the classroom and you bring them here and suddenly they are the shining stars, and it’s thrilling for me as a teacher to see these kids and talk to their parents. It has a lifelong influence on the kids. Every other area of the arts has boundaries. Theater doesn’t. It extends into everything.”

The Playhouse hosts a summer theater camp for children and presents family entertainment during the summer with The Fabulists outdoor theater shows. Ms. Munafo says, “We’ll always do things with kids.”

Ms. Munafo notes that the project employed from 8 to 10 theater professionals. “All of us who’ve worked on the project feel a large hole in our lives at the moment,” Ms. Munafo said. “There were times during the day when we’d feel insane for doing it but we just loved doing it. It’s a kind of creativity that you don’t get with adults. Adults have learned to analyze and self-judge and kids just go for it and I’ll miss that.”

The Playhouse has moved up its plans to start on a large two-part renovation project, which was slated to begin after the completion of the fall Fourth Grade Theater Project. Over the course of the winter, a large new wing will be added to the rear of the existing building.