At Aspen Community School, the play’s not really the thing
If You Go…
What: ‘The Sunday Funnies,’ presented by Aspen Community School
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, May 5 & Friday, May 6, 7 p.m.
How much: $12-$18
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
The Aspen Community School annually devotes a month to its all-school play — an original production made from scratch by its students with help from teachers, parents and alumni. The K-8 school’s 135 students are currently in the creative thick of it, rehearsing their scenes and songs, building sets and preparing for a two-night run at the Wheeler Opera House May 5 and 6.
But a little secret of this creative endeavor — a cornerstone of the Community School since the early 1970s — is that the teachers don’t care all that much about the production on Aspen’s historic stage.
“All the kids and parents think it’s about putting on this big thing at the Wheeler,” said Principal Jim Gilchrist, now in his 30th year at the Woody Creek public charter school. “It’s not about acting and singing and dancing. I don’t care about that. What I care about is how do you teach people to do something together? How do you teach them to collaborate, to innovate, to take risks?”
Gilchrist and his enthusiastic staff believe the process of coming together to produce a musical from soup-to-nuts teaches those skills and more. After kids put aside the ABCs and algebra and such for four weeks of collaborating on a piece of theater, he said, they return to the classroom better prepared for future challenges.
“The beautiful thing about the process is that it’s about doing something really hard,” Gilchrist said. “The best way to learn skills like perseverance, communication, learning by failure, innovation, collaboration is to actually do something hard where you’re forced to do those things.”
On a recent morning in the Community School common room, the day began with the traditional “all school sing.” Music teacher Stuart LaCroix shouldered a guitar and led vocal exercises. Seventh grader Tatum Johnson joined on the piano to accompany the students through a few original songs from this year’s play, “The Sunday Funnies.” Everybody joined in — even, remarkably, the eighth grade boys, who somehow haven’t been infected with the typical too-cool pose of American adolescence.
From there, the students split up into groups and scattered around the mesa-top Woody Creek campus. The third and fourth graders headed into the gym to practice scenes where they play the characters from “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Peanuts” (the play brings together those comics characters with Dennis the Menace, Garfield and others to revive the dying habit of reading a daily newspaper). Older kids headed into the music room to practice songs, others into the old art room to work on sets.
On the way to the gym, the young actors playing Charlie Brown and Sally and Woodstock explained their roles to this reporter, then broke into a footrace. At the rehearsal, director Garry Pfaffman talked to the kids about projecting their voices.
“I want you to aim your voice at that big circle up behind the basketball hoop and speak up, because at the Wheeler there’s a balcony, and it takes confidence to do that,” he told them. “I want you to practice speaking with confidence.”
They ran through scenes and songs, practicing confidence as the “Peanuts” gang in a classroom scene, as Snoopy and the Red Baron, and as Calvin, Hobbes and Spaceman Spiff. Afterward, the third and fourth graders gathered with Pfaffman in a circle and workshopped their performances.
Pfaffman, who taught outdoor education before taking on the all-school play, said afterward that his students reliably meet the challenges the play presents.
“I love for kids to be able to be in a situation where they have to take a risk, and they have to put themselves out in front of the whole school community and then whole bigger community. It’s scary. They’re on edge. They’re totally nervous. And that’s when kids learn, when their emotions are engaged,” he said. “They raise themselves to a higher standard, and that’s what this is all about.”
Traditionally, teachers have written the all-school play with songwriting assistance from parents and alumni. This year, eighth grader Sarah Teague wrote the “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes” scenes and penned four songs for them. She’s also co-directing the scenes she worked on through summer and the fall of her final year at the Community School.
“I’ve always loved the play, since I was in kindergarten,” she said.
She recalled the honor of playing Tiger Lilly in the 2010 production of “Alice in Wondertime,” but also remembered having ideas as a youngster about how she might improve on a character or a line of dialogue. Based on that, she’s emerged as an actor’s director to her young cast — soliciting their feedback and empowering them to voice their creative ideas.
“It’s kind of weird for me,” she said with a laugh. “As a third grader, I remember often wanting to change the play and talking about it. So I’ve been trying to let the kids have a bigger say in writing the play.”
Among her songs is a reworking of Widespread Panic’s Charlie Brown-themed “C. Brown,” which Pfaffman suggested they incorporate into the “Peanuts” section.
“It was fun to write a song to fit the scene that maybe a few parents will recognize,” Teague said.
Producing an original play, and starting from scratch, allows students to run with ideas and aspects of it that they’re passionate about. Johnson, the pianist, will play with the professional band at the Wheeler, for example, and a technologically inclined student will help run the sound board (“The Wheeler staff is really cool about letting our kids use their $100,000 machines,” Pfaffman quipped.)
When Carson Miller and Axel Livingston saw the lame vehicle design of a van in their scene, they set out to improve on it.
“We don’t want a van, we need a cool car,” Miller, an eighth grader, said Tuesday while working on the new sports car design with Livingston in the art room.
The boys were finalizing it on a massive piece of poster board and comparing it with their original sketch (they opted against including the spoiler in their automotive design, concluding it’d be impractical).
Chris Faison, a retired teacher who comes back to build sets with students annually for the play, was excited by the boys’ initiative. As with everything in the all-school play, he wants students to take ownership of the set design and collaborate to transform their ideas into three dimensions.
A yellow school bus piece, he noted, was going to being painted by first and second graders.
“Who knows if you’ll be able to read it, but it’ll be theirs,” he said with a smile.
For all the good feeling and hard work on the campus during play season, there are still many who would argue that foregoing a month of traditional classroom time for it is frivolous — that kids would be better prepared for the 21st century with a strict STEM curriculum and that this kind of arts education shouldn’t be a priority. It’s not a performing arts school, after all, and most of these students won’t go on to be actors (though some Community School alumni have — “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Dakota Johnson among them).
Gilchrist dismisses this kind of criticism — his students learn computer coding and math and science and such, in addition to putting on their big play.
“One of the things that I find fascinating is that we run a project-based, post-progressive school and we still have some of the highest test scores in the state,” he said, pointing to last year’s 93rd-percentile results on the state-wide PARCC assessment tests. “The bottom line is that it’s not an ‘either-or.’ It’s an ‘and.’ It’s a false dichotomy to say there’s only one way to teach kids these 21st century skills.”
Some students, he noted, were finishing up their state-mandated assessment tests even as full-time play preparations began.
“They’re creaming their tests and they’re in the play,” he said. “Because these things go together.”
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