To the untrained eye the scene was this: two adults on stage, one speaking in an English accent, the other in a cross between a buccaneer’s snarl and a schoolyard bully. Five kids looked expectantly at their director, an adult on hands and knees, who crawled dramatically across the Vineyard Playhouse stage. The cast watched seriously for a good half-minute before all, director included, erupted into uncontrollable, side-clutching giggles.
“Sorry,” said M.J. Bruder Munafo, artistic director at the playhouse, getting back up on two legs. “I just get so silly with all this.” Her cheeks were still flush with laughter and her eyes twinkled.
Through them, one could see the scene as it really was: a mermaid (because every good play created by fourth graders, decorated with costumes they sewed and sets they painted, should have a mermaid) lies on the sand next to a Native American. They are a moment away from being chased down by a descendent of Blackbeard (Captain Blackbeard III, to be precise) who is on a plundering power trip with his sidekick, Shorty. In the wings, and not so quietly, wait the first woman to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, a pig and Spotty the frog (because a good chase scene is not complete without pirates, frogs and female doctors, not to mention pigs).
To the untrained eye it looked like mayhem. To those in the know, it was magic.
This week, almost every fourth grader across the Island took over the Vineyard Playhouse and not just the stage. Behind one door sat two from Edgartown, putting the finishing touches on a leopard costume. On another morning, a trio from West Tisbury could be found behind another. They stayed busy on the telephone, soliciting ads from local businesses.
The students are knee-deep in the Fourth Grade Theatre Project, a venture begun in 1993 as a way to get the Tisbury fourth grade class, a group with ants in their pants, out of the school. The school was under construction and the gym was, for a year, out of commission; hence the antsy pants.
For years, Ms. Bruder Munafo had longed to start a collaboration between the Vineyard schools and the playhouse. “It has always been a pet peeve of mine that there are just not good plays for 9 and 10-year-olds to perform,” she said this week as a slew of kids clad in smocks 10 sizes too big painted scenery behind her. “My own personal experience as a kid was that theatre was inaccessible. It was not something I could participate in because I thought you had to be on stage and that frightened me.”
And so in 1993 Ms. Bruder Munafo, along with writer, producer and Tisbury school parent Georgia Morris, pitched the idea. Then-principal Alan Campbell jumped at the chance to get the class — at the time, the biggest ever to have gone through the elementary school — out of the building.
The project, born of a need, was a success, and one which quickly became a tradition. The Oak Bluffs School signed up in 1996. The Charter School was next, followed by Chilmark and West Tisbury in 2005. Last year, the Edgartown School became the final elementary school to join. This year, 10 classes are taking part in the 11-week program, which starts with visits to the classroom from Ms. Bruder Munafo and culminates with public performances and a bow from each student involved. The project is like a coloring book without lines, an experience which lets children blaze their own path and shine in the areas which naturally interest them.
Students generate the ideas for the original plays, which debut this weekend with three works from the Edgartown troupe: Meowski! The New Farm Family, Historic Blackout and A Monkey in the White House. After brainstorming sessions with the kids, Ms. Bruder Munafo and Kate Hancock, the project co-director and playhouse production manager, write the scripts. Following four classroom visits, the students begin coming to the theatre once a week for nearly two hours. They break into teams — technical, artistic, acting and production — and spend their time rehearsing scenes, making props and designing posters.
Like nothing else, the project breathes truth into the old adage, there are no small parts, only small actors. The actors are indeed small — when this reporter sat in on a rehearsal, she was introduced to the cast as a member of that first fourth-grade group from Tisbury in 1993, which merited the response, “Whoa. You are old . I was not even born then.” But the parts, on and off stage, behind curtains and in front of the sounding board, are large and vitally important.
“They get a sense of success, I think,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said thoughtfully. “Of accomplishment and success. And they’ve really learned something.”
The weeks leading to the performance are a scramble. This week, with only a few precious afternoons left before opening night, Edgartown students forgot their lines and missed their lighting cues. When that curtain does rise at showtime, however, the mayhem inevitably will subside and the show — a feat — will be met with a standing ovation. The bow taken at the end will send a shiver of pride among the cast and crew and the teachers and parents watching from the audience.
“When students come back to see the plays as seventh graders, eighth graders, they say, ‘That was good, but ours was really the best,’” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “They all think that, and I want them all to think that. Theirs was truly the best.”
It should go without saying that the plays of that first Fourth Grade Theatre Project, which included a spin-off of the Greek myth Pandora’s Box, a romp through a rainforest, and an undersea take on West Side Story, were actually the best, despite what Ms. Bruder Munafo said. As the curtain lifted, the theatre, slightly scuffed, scratched and worn, transformed into a Broadway set. The lines, even those missed, were right up there with those delivered by Hamlet, Othello and Juliet. The 15-minute shows seemed to last a lifetime. And yet, in the 15 years since, it seems as though the stage has shrunk. Come to think of it, I could say with near certainty that the whole space was smaller.
From my seat in the audience this week, it was clear that time, which may have colored my memory, has not even come close to diminishing the magic of the experience. “It’s probably going to be really good,” said West Tisbury student Molly Houghton, smock askew and paintbrush in hand. “It’s going to be scary, but I’ll be kind of proud that I was able to do it.”