Gustafson: Treading the boards – a bridge to the future |

Gustafson: Treading the boards – a bridge to the future

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

There is something about the uncluttered, harmonious and innocent sound of children’s singing that has always moved me, often to tears. Last night, while watching my daughter on stage in her first full production school play, the emotional waves swept me back to my own formative years when the school play was a focal point of our elementary school existence. As a child, I can recall sinking deep into the excitement and anticipation that only live stage performances can induce.

The characters we became cross-pollinated with our own identities, and in some ways we lived by many of the morals and values we picked up through such a heightened experience at such a young age.

Once the costumes and makeup were in place, shifting our persona, our hearts were set aflutter backstage. Listening to the buzz of the audience filling their seats and the musical overture heightened the anticipation. Jostled and shoved into our places, surrounded by the ebullient behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle, the curtain would finally lift. The lights, warm and blinding, would flood the stage and transport us into another dimension; if for only an hour, flowing through a child’s heart for life.

What we, as parents, might now feel compelled to endure with obligatory parental patience, or see as just a cute video opportunity, can have a deep reservoir of impact on the little minds on stage. They have dedicated themselves to these small moments for weeks, dreaming about their lines, internalizing the songs, fearing and fantasizing about their moments in the spotlight.

Thank the stars for the inspirational Cathy Crum, who wrote and directed the thought-provoking school plays when I attended Aspen Elementary School, and for many years to follow. We acted and sang our little hearts out for Cathy, who teamed up with Linda McCarthy for our productions. And our teachers found ways to weave the play’s characters and themes of compassion and unity, history, diversity, and some future forecasting throughout our lesson plans.

As fourth-graders, we performed in “A Colorado History Book,” which now, after more than 30 years in production, has had a stage life far surpassing the average Broadway run. Tammy Baar, who worked alongside Cathy for many years, now directs the school plays and is clearly visited by the same muse. This year, Tammy, along with the help of Sarah Stevens, brought to the stage an enthusiastic and colorful production. The sometimes spontaneous moments that occurred during the live stage performance were both heartwarming both on script and off. We watched the young students care for and support one another throughout their fumbles and falls; as they had clearly internalized the theatrical philosophy “the show must go on,” which they managed to accomplish with both grace and character intact.

Figuratively, and on occasion literally, Cathy’s presence can still be seen and felt through her lyrics that have inspired casts of young minds and those of attentive audiences for generations.

There are some moments in life that are so powerful that they can carve out a fixed memory. I can still see the shoulders of the costume-clad girl in front of me as I stood feverishly fidgeting backstage. We stood in the old red brick gym locker room hallway, hearts thumping, preparing to take the stage for our theatrical debuts. I also can feel the elation after the curtains closed to the sound of applause and the sense of withdrawal that came the following Monday back at school. Back to the regular routines after what had seemed like months of play prep, and for myself as a shy but passionate wannabe method actor, weeks without breaking character in my mind. And now, falling asleep last night, my daughter expressed similar sentiments, explaining how school “won’t feel the same since the play is done.”

The word “theatre” comes from the Greeks. It means “the seeing place: A place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.” And every age has its story to tell.

The poetic lyrics from my own sixth grade, avant-garde performance, staged in the old art museum, still ping pong around in my brain at odd moments. I’ve recently hearkened back to that original Cathy masterpiece entitled “Freedom.” The focal point of which was the teardown of the Berlin Wall, a powerful symbol of unity and global progress at the time, which is ironic given recent transgressions.

The essence of the lyrics Cathy wrote for that show are still sung annually on stage to choked-up audiences who can feel the power and innocence in song and statement when it is passed through the vessel of young voices.

“This story has two sides/The mirror has two faces.

Ice and fire we might be.

We don’t see eye to eye/You have your thoughts I have mine.

Sometimes sad … history.

I guess we must agree to disagree … peacefully.”

Words of a divided world we were waking up to as 12-year-olds exploring the complexities of slavery, holocaust, assassinations, divisiveness and oppression, while coming of age ourselves. The cross connections made for some serious soul-searching. They were the beginnings of the end of innocence, at least for me as a middle schooler. I had not yet questioned the adult world, until I was given permission to roam around in it safely in costume and on stage.

We chanted, “We don’t need these walls, we don’t need these walls, these walls are coming down,” as we collectively tore down the wall that had divided our classmates throughout the play.

Maybe that’s why, despite our socioeconomic differences then and now, the core values I shared with my classmates and fellow Aspen School alumni give way to a resounding disgust at the very suggestion of building new walls and religions persecution. I understood this by sixth grade and I know my children are compassionate enough to carry that torch.

The Cathy Crum song that brought me near tears at my still very young daughter’s significantly more lighthearted show last week, hold similar truths.

“A fellow planet’s in distress/It’s not a lovely sight,

We are caring Martians we’ll help them do what’s right.

Children unit/Children stand tall/even if grownups stumble and fall.

The earth needs children just like you/to show that caring is the very right thing to do.”

On stage kids learn through experience that no one character can exist in isolation. “Treading the boards” helps young children understand the importance of cooperation and the significance that each player brings to the performance.

They learn how each voice adds to the choir and how celebrating what brings us together, whether it be encouraging peace and building bridges between planets or countries, or respecting history and it’s life lessons and how these things help us all to honor the collective ties that bind us. Applauding the common human experiences; love, loss, friendships, struggles and fears, when we step into another character- another human’s life- we realize that we are all far more alike than we are different and that we all depend on one another. Each role is significant on stage and off.

That’s the message that I saw and the school play theme that I heard. Seeing the kids teaching their parents that, instead of belaboring the minutia that tears us apart, their purpose in life should be to care for one another, work in collaboration and above all to be kind. It seems to come naturally. Oh what kids know before we teach them otherwise. What an amazingly productive use of an hour in life. Well done Cathy and Linda, thank you Tammy and Sarah!

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at