Thursday, May 23, 2019

“And They All Got To Be Friends”

To those who weren’t part of the process, it probably looked like nothing much: a bunch of boxes, some children’s drawings, a few stuffed animals. If it wasn’t for the chairs set up in rows and the slightly raised bit of flooring that reads as a stage, few would have known that they were in a theater. 

This stage was set for our play, one our four and five-year-olds have been working on for the better part of five months, starting in January, “writing” it one line at a time. For weeks, I would set myself up at a corner table with a clipboard and pen, taking dictation from whatever children stopped by. Sometimes they worked alone, sometimes in groups, layering their ideas one upon the other, brainstorming, creating plot lines and characters, trying to make one another laugh. Occasionally, they would ask me to read the entire script to them, usually declaring it “too short,” before adding more.

My father-in-law was an English professor and once told me that he preferred Victorian novels over contemporary ones, complaining, “Traditional novels have satisfying plots; modern novels just seem to be one damned thing after another.” This script was definitely of the modern variety, as knights and mermaids and ballerinas and ninjas joined with cats and snow plows and ice skaters and birds to race about, fight, discover, play, defeat bad guys, clear roadways, build robots, adventure, and make friends, while offering the audience three separate all-cast dance parties. 

While the first draft took place around a table, the real “writing” happened as we rehearsed, and boy did we rehearse. This is the 18th time I’ve helped children create a play for their end-of-year celebration and I’ve never had a group so eager to practice, often demanding it when I had other plans, like playing in the sunshine. During the rehearsals, kids would call out to me, “Take that part out!” They would decide to change their character in the middle of a scene. Better ideas replaced the old ideas in the blink of an eye, and my job, as director, was simply to keep up, recording their wishes as accurately as possible.

As we got closer to the end of the school year, and the final form of our show began to come clear, we began to work on our sets and props. So often, when parents come to see their preschoolers perform, this is where the adult hand is most evident, but just as we managed to leave the script and rehearsals to the children, this too was fully a product of their collective creativity. I would say, “We have lots of bad guys in this play, but none of you want to be bad guys. What should we do?” And they responded, “We should draw them with markers.” When I said, “Right now, we’re just pretending there is a castle. Do we need a real one?” They responded, “Let’s build one out of boxes.” And this is how we created, each detail, no matter how small, the product of our collective, creative, dialog.

Word-by-word, character-by-character, set piece-by-set piece, prop-by-prop, and damned thing-by-damned thing, our play came together, and on Tuesday we performed it. It was a delightful, chaotic, mess of a performance, the kind of thing that could have only come from the minds of these children; it was a piece of art that we presented on a stage for an audience at a given time on a given day, but that has already existed for months and will continue to exist far beyond the brief moment when we allowed the wider world a peek of who we have become, together. The final line of this play said it all, “And they all got to be friends.”

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