Theater : Fourth Grade Theater Project begins with Edgartown
Chaos reigned inside the Vineyard Playhouse lobby last Saturday afternoon, the kind of chaos you'd expect when dozens of nine- and ten-year-olds gather. The Edgartown School was presenting the opening matinee of a program of two short plays created and produced during the annual Fourth Grade Theater Project. Youngsters were scurrying around as the Playhouse staff tried to herd them into their separate teams.
Once the audience was seated, the lights were dimmed, and the three-student production crew stepped in front of the crowd to make their opening announcements, all was as organized and synchronized as any professional production. Not a cue was missed; the sound effects, music, and lights were perfectly timed; and the costumes and sets were polished and effective. It's not surprising that all went so smoothly, since the student cast, crew, and production team had dedicated the last six weeks to this day.
Samantha Cassidy (Stinger, a scorpion in "Cave Critters Unite") credits her ability to adopt accents - her scorpion is a southern belle - to exposure to her dad Mike's impersonations, which helped her develop an appreciation for all that goes into the creation of a play.
The Fourth Grade Theater Project was founded 16 years ago by the Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo and filmmaker Georgia Morris. Today, Ms. Munafo and Kate Hancock act as co-directors, and are assisted by a team of theater professionals. Students are guided through the entire process of presenting a play - from selling program ads, to designing sets and costumes, to performing, to operating the lights and sound.
Ms. Munafo describes the project as "a fun, intensive introduction to the theater at the fourth grade level. It's an immersion experience."
The schedule was split in two this year. Rather than having all the Island fourth-graders run their plays concurrently, the schedule has been divided. Oak Bluffs School will present its two plays this coming Saturday, and in January, Tisbury's and West Tisbury's fourth graders will present theirs.
The process starts in the classroom, where the first few bi-weekly sessions are held. Students are encouraged to share personal information about their hobbies and interests and the people in their lives, and the entire class gets involved in the creation of the material. The youngsters are asked to come up with a variety of settings and corresponding characters and then work out possible plots, learning along the way about plot development.
"We talk to them a lot about play structure," says Ms. Hancock, a retired fourth-grade teacher. "We explain that there needs to be a problem and a solution. The kids come up with a number of scenarios and then vote on their favorite."
The co-directors look to the teachers for their input because the plays are based on the children's curriculum. Last weekends' plays, "Derby Drama" and "Cave Critters Unite," incorporated animal adaptation, and assimilation into different cultures. To reinforce the current English studies, "Cave Critters Unite" was also written as a pourquoi tale, a legend used to explain a natural phenomenon.
Ms. Munafo and Ms. Hancock do the actual scripting of the plays, using the material that the classes chose. Students are divided into six teams led by adults who have theater experience. While the actors are rehearsing, the costume, scenic painting and props groups are busy constructing, painting, and sewing, the tech crew is learning how to operate the lights and sound, and the production team is designing the posters and programs, and selling ads.
Cailynn Patnaude, who worked on "Cave Critters" costumes, says that she has been designing and drawing since she was little. "I learned how to sew, and I learned that you can use leftover material for other things," she says.
"Cave Critters" set painter Alana Morris says she was encouraged by her teacher to join her team because of her artistic talent. For their set design of the inside of a cave, they learned about stalactites and stalagmites. Alana says, "I feel like I did a lot."
A member of the "Derby Drama" props team, Joao Goncalves is proud of the full-size motorcycle that his team constructed out of cardboard. He says, "We all came up with ideas and then we made them."
The production teams are responsible for the box office and concession stand, as well as designing the poster and programs, and selling ads. "Derby Drama's" Bryan Alencar learned how to operate a cash register, and "Cave Critter's" Thiago Muniz says, "I liked selling the ads."
Ms. Hancock describes how the magic of theater becomes evident during the dress rehearsal, when everything comes together for the first time. Until then, the kids have focused on their specific tasks, and they're not sure how their contribution is going to fit in. She says, "It's a wonderful moment when they look at all of it and they see that they've done this. This is really all their imagination and creativity that has created this piece of theater. There's a great sense of ownership and pride."
Ms. Hancock adds, "I was a terrible student, but the one thing I was good at was theater. You see kids who don't know where they fit in and they find a place where they're successful. You can really see tremendous change in the kids in the course of the program. It gives them confidence to try things they haven't done before."
Fourth Grade Theater Project: Oak Bluffs, 2 and 7 pm, Saturday, Nov. 21, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. "Taj Mah-Trouble" by Ms. Muldaur's class; "Potion Commotion" by Ms. Brown's class. $6; $4 children. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.