“Chickens! Are you ready?”
Upstairs at the Vineyard Playhouse on Tuesday, artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo was calling two actors for their cue.
“I don’t have any lines, I’m a chicken,” Nanauwe Vanderhoop cheerfully clarified for the press as she took her place, adding a funky move that showed she had her fowl attitude perfected, lines or no lines. She and fellow chicken Skyler Cameron were quite ready to take their part in Chased by the Wind, Saved by a Hobo, one of ten plays soon to debut as part of The Fourth Grade Theatre Project.
It is the final rehearsal days for these third and fourth graders from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Their show — conceived, designed, costumed, acted, even marketed by the students (with grown-up guidance at every step) — premieres for the public Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m. alongside two plays, The Loot of Me Booty and Living Outside the Box, by their counterparts at the Edgartown School. On three Saturdays following, original plays from Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury students also will be unveiled at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Watching scores of small theatre hands zipper their packs and snacks and jackets and file out as the next busload came in — one school out, next school in — and watching sets sliding with Broadway ease across the makeshift workshop in the lobby — park scene out, graveyard in — one of the grownups, Chris Brophy, stood back and marveled: “It’s a factory.”
He was talking about the precision of the very complicated production logistics. But what the kids will tell you is, this is a factory for the imagination. “Come see this!” they repeat, producing one creation after another, explaining how it all fits into their show.
The Fourth Grade Theatre Project is an extraordinary introduction to theatre as artistic collaboration, for students at every Island school. Ms. Bruder Munafo and Georgia Morris began the program 16 years ago with one school. For these kids, it began 11 weeks ago with playhouse staff coming to their classrooms once a week. Now, production week, it’s kids everywhere in the playhouse.
Downstairs, the chicken costumes were being readied; Sequoia Ahren was hand-stitching the feet, Simone Vega had painted some of the chicken tail — “Now I’m stuffing it,” she pointed out — and Lea Potter was pedal-to-the-metal at the sewing machine under the watchful eye of costume designer Marlene DiStephano. The girls got to go to the thrift shop to forage for costumes — a gray ensemble for the timid character, glasses for the know-it-all. Today they glued an Elvis patch on the rock star boy’s T-shirt, which had music notes patterned across it. “I liked going shopping for the other costumes,” Sequoia said, “but making the chicken costumes has been the most fun.”
In the closet-like space connected to the sewing room, Sydney Jasny, Lily Tilton and Maia Ponte were cutting tinsel and an old hula skirt into strips. Mr. Brophy manned the hot glue gun, attaching the glittering, whispering strips to the hand-cut and painted clouds. “The props people cut this out of like Styrofoam, see?” explained Sydney, holding up a cloud. “Should I make the blue bits longer?” asked Lily. Maybe not, because soon they had used all the tinsel on just the first cloud. Mr. Brophy returned from the basement with orange garland — “It’s from Halloween!” he announced triumphantly. “It smells like pumpkins!” the girls giggled. “No, candy!”
In the lobby, cups and cans held brushes of all sizes, ready next to seven economy-sized bottles of bright paint. On the paint-spattered plastic taped over the hardwood floors, accordion sets towered over the artists at work. Ciara Seccombe’s hands seemed to have a bit of every color on them — corroboration, perhaps, for Basia Jaworska Silva’s effusive report about the artistic talents of Ciara and the other set designers, Aidan Aliberti, Lucy Thompson, Belle Dupon. (Full disclosure: Ciara is my daughter.)
These kids already had sketched their set designs, traced them onto the panels with the help of an overhead projector, lined it all in black. “Last week was basic color,” said Lucy, waving a brush of brown. “This is our detail week,” Belle added with a flourish of red.
Their panels show on one side, the Tisbury Water Works, and on the other, a classroom. “Well, the story we came up with starts in a class,” explained Ciara. Much like the play itself did. In November, these students split into four groups, drew characters and settings from an envelope, and, as Ciara put it, “Then we all just made up stories.” They voted on the story that became Chased by the Wind, Saved by a Hobo.
Now Otto Osmers, Charlie Whalen and Camilla Prata are making up a sales pitch, heading out to sell ads for the program. The boys have the excitement bit down pat; Camilla’s hard-sell is all in her beaming smile. By the time the bus takes them back to school, these three had coaxed $200 out of nearby shops and cafes.
Cathal Robinson Walter Greene and Ruby Dix don’t have to leave the playhouse for a snack — they’re painting their own hamburger over in props.
Soon all the students were called from their various workshops to the theatre upstairs. Some, like Matthew Luce, Garrett Hagen and Shay Sullivan, would have lighting and sound duties. Most of the other behind-the-scenes workers would be extras or stage crew; Ciara reported she had her “luckiest day ever” last week when her name was drawn from a hat to be stage crew, along with Avery Miner and Ricardo Andrade. Now, stage manager Geneva Monks would show the crew tricks like “spiking” the floor with glow-tape marks.
Meanwhile, “Imagine we have music happening,” M.J. called to the actors now waiting in the wings. “And here’s an actor’s tip: close your eyes before the lights go off, then when you open them in the dark it’ll be easier to see.”
The nine charter school actors had taken a last look at their cheat sheets. With the occasional yawn — making them look just like kids in a real classroom — they perfected their opening scene even as new scenery was being taped in place around them.
Then M.J. called the extras from their seats in Row D and began choreographing them into a storm. As they crisscrossed the stage, she smiled, “Oh, it’s going to be so magnificent — I wish we had hours to rehearse it.”
But it already was time to go. “Tomorrow is dress rehearsal,” she said, with the hopeful uncertainty of all directors days before curtain. But as she passed M.J., the cheeky chicken Nanauwe winked and said, “We’ll be ready.”
Original short plays from the Fourth Grade Theatre Project debut Saturdays from Jan. 24 through Feb. 14 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Vineyard Playhouse on Church street in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for children and are available at the box office on the day of performance. The theatre is handicapped accessible.